The Dangers of the Lottery


The lottery is a system in which prizes, typically money or goods, are awarded to participants by drawing lots. In the financial lottery, players purchase tickets for a fixed price, and win prizes if they match certain numbers. The odds of winning a prize are very low. The draw is often advertised as a way of raising funds for a particular purpose, such as building a town fortification or helping the poor. It is also used for other purposes, such as determining which subsidized housing units or kindergarten placements are assigned to paying lottery participants.

The first modern state-run lottery was established in New Hampshire in 1964, as a means of avoiding a tax increase that could have angered its anti-tax voters. A similar pattern played out elsewhere, as the late twentieth-century tax revolt saw a number of states slash their budgets and turn to lotteries for cash. For politicians desperate for a budgetary miracle that wouldn’t upset their basest constituents, lotteries seemed like the perfect solution.

But as Cohen explains, the gimmick isn’t foolproof. Lotteries can lead to all sorts of distortions in the economy and public policy, from skewed economic growth to unnecessarily costly gimmicks. And they can encourage irrational gambling behavior, from buying tickets on impulse to picking “lucky” numbers or stores to buy them in. And, as we’ve seen in many other fields, lotteries aren’t above the temptation to manipulate the rules to keep people spending more and more of their money.

A more serious concern is that, as they are often advertised as a solution to a fiscal crisis, lotteries may actually contribute to the problem. They can create a false sense of security that allows governments to cut taxes and slash programs, which ultimately puts the economy and its citizens at risk. They can also be exploited by dishonest operators, who promote them as a way to boost profits and lure in new participants.

Nevertheless, it’s hard to find anyone who opposes the idea of a state-run lottery for any reason other than philosophical objections to betting on chance. As long as people continue to have a desire to try their luck at getting rich, there will be a market for it, whether in a box at a grocery store or in the fifty-dollar scratch-offs you can pick up while checking your bank account at a check-cashing joint. And state lottery commissions aren’t above availing themselves of the psychology behind addiction, using everything from ad campaigns to the design of their tickets to keep players coming back for more. This is no different than the strategies used by tobacco companies or video-game manufacturers.

Posted in: Gambling