The Truth About the Lottery

    Whether it’s the scratch-off game at the gas station or the megamillions available online, lottery players spend billions each year trying to beat the odds and make their dreams come true. But the truth is, those odds aren’t very good. This is why it’s important to understand how the lottery works and what the chances really are of winning.

    The origins of lotteries go back centuries. The Old Testament instructed Moses to take a census and divide the land by lot, while Roman emperors used them to give away property and slaves. By the 17th century, they were a familiar feature of many European countries, with France’s first state-run lotteries authorized by King Francis I in 1539.

    In the United States, lottery games have been around for over 200 years and are a major source of state revenue. But that revenue comes at a cost, and it’s worth asking whether or not it’s the right kind of revenue to pursue. It’s easy to see how lottery revenues could support a wide range of public goods, and in the immediate post-World War II period they allowed some states to expand their array of services without imposing especially onerous taxes on the working class. But in the face of inflation and the ever-increasing costs of public programs, that arrangement is starting to crumble, and it’s time for a fresh look at whether lotteries are the right way to raise revenue going forward.

    A problem with gambling, including the lottery, is that people tend to buy into it irrationally. They believe that their ticket in the big drawing isn’t just a waste of money, but that it will be their only chance to escape poverty or achieve a better life. They’re also enamored with supposedly magical systems that can predict the results of the lottery, from favored numbers to lucky stores to best times to play.

    What’s more, the marketing for lotteries is at cross-purposes with larger public policy goals. It’s a classic case of government at any level having little or no control over an activity from which it profits, and that leads to some serious questions about the lottery’s role in society.

    It’s not so much that the lottery is bad or evil; it’s that it is inextricably linked to gambling and a desire by many people to win large sums of money. This is a complication that can’t be easily eliminated, even if all forms of gambling were made illegal. But it’s an issue that deserves a close look, especially given that lottery proceeds often go to affluent states and to people who have little need for a state safety net. And it’s a reminder that public policy is often made piecemeal, and that decisions can have unforeseen consequences down the road. Fortunately, many state governments are experimenting with new ways to raise revenue, from marijuana legalization to carbon taxes, and it’s possible that they’ll find the lottery isn’t the best place to do it.