Should States Have an Official Lottery?

Unlike most gambling operations, state-controlled lotteries exist to provide proceeds that support the state itself. The vast majority of state governments use the proceeds from lottery games to fund education and other public services. Whether such a policy makes sense is an entirely different matter.

It is easy to understand why some people would choose a lottery as a means of financing government projects. However, the concept is also extremely risky for the players because they are being exposed to the dangers of addiction and losing control over their money. In addition, the profits of lottery are often distributed unevenly. This inequality has become a major issue in the US and many other countries around the world.

In the early American colonies, there were private lotteries and, in some cases, they were used to finance public works. However, America was soon defined politically by a general aversion to taxation. This left states facing budget crises that could not be solved without raising taxes or cutting public services. Seeing the money to be made in lottery games, legislators began to consider getting in on the action.

Rather than selling the lottery as a silver bullet that would float the entire budget, legalization advocates began to promote it as a means of funding a single line item—usually education but sometimes elder care or public parks. The narrower appeal of the lottery has been a success; it has allowed advocates to avoid arguing that a vote for the lottery is a vote against gambling, while still convincing voters that the revenue it raises will not be absorbed into the general state coffers.