Lottery Commissions and the Public Interest


The lottery is a classic example of government policy making at cross-purposes with the public interest. Lotteries promote gambling and rely on advertising to get people to spend money. As a result, they have regressive effects on poorer people, encourage problem gambling, and are at risk of losing the public’s trust. The public should demand more transparency and accountability from state lotteries.

The concept of the lottery dates back to ancient times when wealthy Romans distributed goods during Saturnalian celebrations. Lotteries were also used by the Continental Congress to raise money for the Revolutionary War.

In the 17th century, the Dutch introduced state-run lotteries to raise funds for a variety of public uses. The English word lotteries derives from the Dutch noun “lot,” meaning fate.

During the American Revolution, Benjamin Franklin sponsored a lottery to raise funds for cannons to defend Philadelphia against the British. After the revolution, lotteries became an important source of state revenue, and they were hailed as a painless form of taxation.

Although lotteries have a positive impact on state budgets, they are not necessarily a good idea. They have regressive effects because the poor (the bottom quintile) do not have enough discretionary income to play. Moreover, lotteries make it harder for states to fund higher education.

Lottery commissions try to counter these problems by promoting the experience of buying a ticket as fun. They also emphasize that the odds of winning are random, so it does not matter which numbers you choose. However, these messages gloss over the regressivity of lotteries and obscure how much people play them.