Lottery Politics


A competition in which numbered tickets are sold and prizes are given to the holders of numbers drawn at random, as a way of raising money for public or private purposes. Historically, lotteries were widely used in colonial America to finance a variety of projects. They helped fund the Virginia Company and other ventures, as well as paving streets and building wharves and churches. George Washington even sponsored a lottery to build a road across the Blue Ridge Mountains.

But there’s more to the lottery than just luck. It’s about the allure of instant riches in an era where wealth inequality is rising and social mobility is stagnant. And that’s why it’s so popular with so many people—including those who don’t gamble or even like gambling—to spend billions of dollars on tickets.

The odds of winning a lottery prize are low, but that doesn’t stop a steady stream of people from buying tickets. It’s a classic example of irrational behavior.

Many states have lotteries, and they tend to be popular with voters. They are a source of revenue that doesn’t require a steep increase in state taxes and they can be earmarked to benefit a specific public purpose. But they’re also a perfect example of how state policy is made piecemeal and incrementally, and how officials quickly become dependent on lottery revenues.

When a state starts a lottery, it creates a monopoly for itself; establishes a public agency to run the game (rather than licensing a private firm in exchange for a cut of the profits); begins with a modest number of relatively simple games; and then, under pressure for more and more money, progressively expands the lottery’s scope and complexity. This process often involves building broad and overlapping constituencies, including convenience store operators (who make large contributions to state political campaigns), lottery suppliers, teachers (in states where the proceeds are earmarked for education), and state legislators.

As a result, the lottery is one of the few state policies that has broad and sustained support, even in times of economic stress. And while the popularity of lotteries has declined in recent years, they still raise billions of dollars each year, and there’s no sign that they’re about to disappear.