The Popularity of the Lottery

The lottery is a form of gambling in which participants pay a sum of money for the chance to win a prize, such as money or goods. The practice dates back centuries. The Old Testament includes a story in which Moses is instructed to take a census of Israel and divide the land by lot; Roman emperors often used lotteries to give away property and slaves during Saturnalian feasts. The first state-run lotteries were established in the Low Countries during the fifteenth century, with a number of towns using them to raise funds for town fortifications and charity. In America, colonists brought the idea from England and were able to sell tickets despite Protestant proscriptions against gambling.

The principal argument for the lottery is that it is a painless source of revenue that does not impose new taxes on the general public, and thus satisfies voters who are eager to see government spending increased. However, the popularity of the lottery is not tied to the objective fiscal health of a state; the lottery continues to win broad approval even when there are no major budget crises. The popularity of lotteries is also fueled by the fact that the proceeds are earmarked for specific public benefits, such as education, and that they appeal to a wide variety of political constituencies: convenience store operators (whose customers buy lots of tickets); lottery suppliers, who make heavy contributions to state elections; teachers (in states that have earmarked the profits from their games for educational purposes); and legislators, who are accustomed to seeing the money rolling in.