The Public Interest and the Lottery

The lottery is a gambling game where participants pay for tickets and have numbers randomly drawn in order to win prizes. Its roots go back centuries; Moses was instructed to take a census of the Israelites and distribute land by lot, and Roman emperors used it to give away property and slaves. Today, state governments use it to raise funds for a variety of purposes. The earliest modern lottery was the Dutch Staatsloterij, established in 1726; its name is believed to be derived from the word for “fate” (although it also could be a calque on Middle Dutch lotijne).

Lottery advocates often cite its popularity and public approval as evidence that its proceeds serve a genuine need for the state. This argument plays well when states are facing budget pressures and are threatening to cut or raise taxes. But in fact, this is rarely the case. States adopt lotteries largely because they are good at attracting and retaining voter support.

Most state-run lotteries start small and then gradually expand their operations, relying on a steady stream of revenue to sustain them. While this may help to ensure that the prize money is large enough to attract many players, it can also lead to an over-reliance on a small group of players and a tendency to focus on those who are most likely to generate revenue. This in turn can have negative consequences for poor people and problem gamblers. It can also mean that lottery officials are running at cross-purposes with the overall public interest.