Public Policy and the Lottery

Lottery is a form of gambling in which the winner receives a prize, such as cash or goods, if his or her numbers match those randomly drawn by a machine. It is a popular pastime and, for some, a way of escaping poverty. However, for others, it can become an expensive addiction that contributes to the erosion of personal and family finances. The use of casting lots to decide fates and to distribute material goods has a long record in human history, although the first recorded lottery to sell tickets with a prize in the form of money was held in 1466 in Bruges, Belgium, for municipal repairs. In colonial America, lotteries were used to raise funds for public works, including canals, roads, libraries, churches, colleges, and universities.

The basic element of a lottery is that the participants write their names on a ticket, then deposit it with the lottery organization for later shuffling and selection in a drawing. This is similar to the random sampling method that scientists sometimes use to conduct randomized tests and blinded experiments.

State governments often argue that the proceeds from a lottery are a “painless” source of revenue, which helps to offset potential tax increases or budget cuts in times of financial crisis. But many of the same issues that plague public policy in general are present in the case of lotteries: authority is fragmented between the legislative and executive branches, and a generalized public welfare perspective is seldom considered.