Public Benefits of the Lottery
The lottery is a type of gambling in which numbers are drawn and the people with matching numbers win prizes. It is a popular form of gambling because the prize money can be very large. However, some people do not like to play the lottery because it is considered addictive. Nevertheless, the money raised by lotteries is often used for good causes in the public sector.
Lotteries have been around for a long time. In colonial America, they played a key role in raising money for private and public ventures, including roads, libraries, churches, colleges, canals, and wharves. Lotteries also provided a useful source of “voluntary taxes,” helping to finance the Revolutionary War and the early American colonies.
Today, state lotteries are big business, making them one of the world’s biggest entertainment industries. They have also been a major contributor to the rapid growth of many states’ economies. However, they raise some very serious concerns. The most important concern is that lotteries promote gambling, and do so in a highly regulated environment where governments set the rules and oversee all aspects of the games. Governments should not be in the business of promoting a vice, particularly when it is addictive and can have such negative social impacts as gambling does.
A second issue is that lotteries tend to attract a particular kind of player, and can quickly create extensive and influential constituencies. These include convenience store operators (who are typically the lottery’s primary vendors); lottery suppliers; teachers in states where a substantial share of the proceeds go to education; and state legislators, who become accustomed to receiving generous campaign contributions from lottery patrons. This is very different from the way that state governments raise most of their revenue, through taxation and other forms of direct taxes.
Moreover, while the general public has little say in the establishment of a lottery, state legislatures have considerable control over its operations and its advertising campaigns. Consequently, many states are in the business of promoting gambling even though it contributes a relatively minor share of their budgets. It is a matter of debate whether this is an appropriate function for the state, given that gambling can lead to addiction and has other detrimental social effects.
In any event, it is difficult to see how state lotteries can justify their existence in the face of a growing list of potential responsibilities and costs. In a state’s fiscal emergency, the lottery can be seen as an easy source of painless revenues, but it is a very difficult argument to sustain in times of prosperity.
A final concern is that few, if any, state governments have a coherent “lottery policy.” The process of establishing a lottery is typically piecemeal and incremental, with no broad-brush oversight. As a result, officials have limited opportunities to make any real changes to the industry and are left with policies and a dependence on revenue that they can do little about.