The Lottery and Its Critics


The lottery is a government-run game in which numbered tickets are sold for a chance to win a prize. Prizes may be cash or merchandise. State lotteries have broad popular appeal and a long history of use as a source of public revenue. They have also spawned intense criticism and debate, ranging from allegations that they promote addictive gambling behavior to charges that they impose a regressive tax on low-income families. In general, critics argue that the state faces an inherent conflict in its desire to increase revenues and its obligation to protect the public welfare.

The first recorded public lotteries to award money prizes in exchange for a ticket appeared in the 15th century in Burgundy and Flanders, with towns seeking funds for town fortifications and the poor. Francis I of France permitted them to be established in several cities. Probably the first European public lottery to sell tickets for a fixed amount of money was the ventura in 1476, in Modena under the auspices of the House of Este.

In the United States, a number of lotteries are operated by the state, while others are privately run by licensed promoters in return for a percentage of the proceeds. State lotteries resemble traditional raffles, with the public purchasing tickets for a drawing held at some future date. Revenues typically expand rapidly after the lottery’s introduction, then tend to level off and sometimes decline. In order to keep revenues up, the lottery often introduces new games.

One of the most famous examples of a lottery winner who squandered his fortune occurred in 2002 when West Virginia construction worker Jack Whittaker won $314 million on Powerball. Known for his outsized cowboy hats and big personality, Whittaker immediately began giving handouts to churches, diner waitresses, family members and complete strangers. He was able to do so until the money ran out. The lottery is still a popular source of public funding in America, and its critics include many people who have a personal stake in the outcome, including convenience store operators, the owners of state-chartered casinos, the owners of private gambling establishments and political opponents of the lottery.

While the practice of determining fates or distributions by lot has a long history in human culture (including several instances in the Bible), modern state-run lotteries have only recently gained acceptance. Their proponents argue that lotteries provide a source of painless revenue, with players voluntarily spending their own money to benefit the common good. Nevertheless, lotteries face significant criticism on the grounds that they promote addictive gambling behavior, are a regressive form of taxation, and lead to other social problems. Lottery officials vehemently deny these claims. Nonetheless, their actions have reinforced the arguments of those who oppose them. State lotteries have a history of becoming large, complex and self-perpetuating institutions that are difficult to change.