The Official Lottery

A competition based on chance, in which numbered tickets are sold and prizes given to holders of numbers drawn at random. The games are usually run by a state government or public corporation for the purpose of raising money for a cause, such as education. Frequently a state will also have private lotteries, which are run by private firms for the benefit of specific groups such as the National Heritage Memorial Fund or sports charities. Historically, the official lottery was a major source of income for the Roman Empire and other ancient civilizations. It is a popular form of gambling in modern times, and the prizes are usually large.

Regardless of the state in question, however, most official lotteries follow a similar path: They start with a legislative monopoly; establish an agency or corporation to run them; begin operations with a modest number of relatively simple games; and then, driven by constant pressure for additional revenues, progressively expand their scope and complexity. As a result, very few, if any, states have a coherent “lottery policy,” and the general welfare is rarely taken into consideration in the establishment or evolution of these enterprises.

State officials often argue that the lottery is a benign activity and that it benefits the community at large, particularly because proceeds are used for a specific public good, such as education. But studies suggest that the actual fiscal condition of a state has little to do with whether it adopts a lottery, and that the popularity of the game is more closely related to its ability to convince the public that it is promoting a positive social change than its success in raising revenue.