Is There Such a Thing As an Official Lottery?

A lottery is a procedure for giving away something (usually money or prizes) by lot or chance, involving the purchase of tickets. A lottery may also refer to the selection of jurors from lists of registered voters. The term is also used in describing commercial promotions that involve a random process, such as the awarding of a prize to the person who pays for a product or service, or to the selection of military conscripts and members of a jury.

Aside from the fact that governments should not be in the business of promoting vice, which is an easy argument to make, there are many reasons to be skeptical of state-sponsored gambling, including the fact that it increases demand and creates new gamblers, as well as the regressive nature of it, meaning that it harms low-income individuals more than it helps them. State governments rely on lotteries to raise revenue for public services and education, but the percentage that these sources represent of total state revenues is small.

Lottery commissions are trying to avoid a discussion of these issues by shifting the focus of their message to the fun of playing the games themselves, which obscures how much people play them and how many of those gamblers are committed to it and spend a significant portion of their incomes on tickets. This strategy is a failure because it reflects the state’s own lack of faith in its ability to tax and raise enough revenue to maintain its public safety net, but it’s also misguided because it obscures the reality that gambling is a societal problem that requires a collective effort to address.

Historically, states have been quick to adopt lotteries when facing a need for additional revenue. In the immediate post-World War II period, when many states were expanding their array of public services without raising taxes, legislators viewed lotteries as “budgetary miracles” that allowed them to finance these initiatives without fear of being punished at the ballot box.

In early America, Benjamin Franklin ran a lottery to help finance the militia that would defend Philadelphia from marauding French troops; John Hancock held one to build Boston’s Faneuil Hall; and the Continental Congress considered using one to fund the Revolutionary War. By the mid-1830s, though, widespread fraud and mismanagement had brought the practice to a halt. A federal law limiting interstate lottery advertising put the kibosh on the Louisiana State Lottery Company, which promoted and sold tickets nationwide, even though the state had banned its sale.