Public Policy and the Lottery


A competition in which numbered tickets are sold for the chance to win prizes, often as a way of raising funds for state or charitable causes. Some governments outlaw lotteries, while others endorse them and regulate them to a certain degree.

People play lottery games because they enjoy the experience and feel a thrill of excitement every time they purchase a ticket. But the truth is that if they knew what the odds were of winning, they would not buy tickets. Fortunately, most state-run lotteries do not show the odds. Instead, they make the message that playing the lottery is a fun and rewarding experience and imply that people are doing their civic duty by helping a worthy cause.

But the real reason state-run lotteries exist is that they are a form of gambling, and, like other forms of gambling, can have negative consequences for poor people and problem gamblers. Moreover, running lotteries as businesses with a focus on maximizing revenues runs at cross-purposes with the larger public interest.

A lottery is a classic example of public policy made piecemeal and incrementally, with little or no overall overview. It is the result of a process that is driven by consumer demand, and as such it is susceptible to “boredom” that has forced state officials to constantly introduce new games in order to maintain or increase their revenue streams. The result is that few if any states have an overall “gambling policy.” The evolution of state lotteries has become a case study in how government makes decisions with limited overall oversight and no overall plan for the public good.