Public Goods and the Lottery

The lottery is a game in which people pay for tickets, select numbers or have machines randomly spit them out, and win prizes if enough of their numbers match the winning numbers. Lotteries have proven to be remarkably popular: in the United States, more than 60% of adults play at least once a year.

A central element of the lottery’s appeal is that its proceeds help finance a specific public good, such as education. This argument has proved particularly persuasive in times of economic stress, when states face the prospect of raising taxes or cutting back on services. But it has been less successful in retaining support during periods of relative prosperity, when state governments are able to expand their array of programs without the lottery’s revenue boost.

It is possible to imagine an alternative lottery model that would not undermine public welfare in the way that current models do. Such an approach might focus on promoting gambling only to people who are most likely to be responsible gamblers and not to encourage them to spend more than they can afford, for example by targeting ads at low-income neighborhoods. It might also ensure that the proceeds of the lottery are used to fund social goods rather than for gambling promotions.

Even so, it is unlikely that a system based on random chance can eliminate problems associated with gambling. The villagers’ loyalty to their shabby black box is illogical, just as it is irrational for them to continue holding the lottery even though it is causing other traditions to crumble and other relics to be lost.