The Public Interest and the Lottery


The drawing of lots to make decisions and determine fates has a long record, but the lottery’s emergence as a state-sponsored gambling enterprise is much more recent. The first state lottery was established in 1967, and it quickly grew into a multistate game that became a major source of government revenue.

The early lotteries were run as a way to raise money for public projects, such as canals and roads. Later, they were used to finance local militias in the French and Indian wars. Lotteries were also popular in the colonies, where they helped to fund schools, churches, and universities. The founders were big fans, too, with Benjamin Franklin organizing one in 1748 to help finance Boston’s Faneuil Hall and George Washington running a lottery to build a road across a mountain pass.

Most modern lotteries offer a “random number” option that allows players to let the computer pick their numbers for them. This method is supposedly more fair and less likely to create repeating patterns, but there’s no guarantee it will help you win. In any case, there’s no evidence that any particular set of numbers is luckier than others.

Because lottery games are run as businesses and are promoted with a focus on maximizing revenues, they are at cross-purposes with the larger public interest. The promotion of gambling can have negative consequences for the poor and problem gamblers, and the proliferation of state lotteries has undermined public control over gambling.