The Dangers of the Lottery

The drawing of lots to determine ownership or other rights has a long record in human history, dating back centuries. It became widespread in Europe in the late fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.

Many governments outlaw lottery, while others endorse it at least to the extent of organizing state or national lotteries. The latter generally have two elements: (1) the establishment of a prize pool and (2) the allocation of prizes by a process that relies on chance.

States take in profits from ticket sales and use them for a variety of purposes, from education to road construction. Some, like New York and California, allocate much of their profits to education. Others, including Georgia and Tennessee, divert much of the money to general revenue. A surprisingly large share of the tickets, however, are sold at retail outlets such as convenience stores, supermarkets, gas stations, churches and fraternal organizations, service stations, restaurants and bars, and bowling alleys.

But the biggest reason that lotteries are so popular is that they dangle the promise of instant riches in an age of growing inequality and limited social mobility. They know that people are drawn to gambling, and they exploit that inextricable human impulse to win. This has a nasty underbelly. The lottery can be addictive, and it can have serious consequences for those who win. This is why the lottery has earned a reputation as something that is not just bad, but also potentially dangerous.