The Lottery and Its Critics

The casting of lots to decide matters with moral or material significance has a long record, including several instances in the Bible. But the lottery, in which winners receive a prize money for entering a contest, is considerably more recent. Its development has been facilitated by the development of electronic computers and the spread of cell phones. It is also aided by the fact that people are increasingly willing to wager a small sum for a large chance of gaining something of considerable value.

Although state lotteries have received widespread public support, critics abound. Some are concerned about the likelihood that lottery players become compulsive gamblers and about a possible regressive effect on lower-income groups. Others focus on specific features of lottery operations. For example, some are worried that state and private lotteries rely heavily on advertising to attract potential bettors. They argue that much of this advertising is deceptive, e.g., by overstating the odds of winning and by inflating the value of the prizes.

Other concerns are that lottery proceeds can divert attention from state budgetary priorities and that the number of states with lotteries may lead to a nationalization of this form of gambling. Yet even when such concerns are taken into account, state government officials usually endorse the concept of a lottery as a means of raising funds for specific public goods. This is because lotteries tend to win broad public approval when a state is facing difficult fiscal times, as was the case in many of the first states to adopt the practice.