The Ethics of the Lottery

The lottery is a form of gambling in which a person or organization wins a prize by matching numbers in a drawing. In the United States, state governments sponsor a variety of games whose prize amounts range from cash to goods and services. A few countries also have national lotteries, with prizes ranging from cars to vacations. Many people play the lottery because they enjoy the excitement of winning a large sum of money, but others criticize the game because it encourages compulsive gambling, discourages saving for the future and may have a regressive effect on lower-income groups.

In the past, lottery tickets were simply bought to be entered into a drawing that took place at a future date, often weeks or months away. But innovations in the 1970s transformed the industry. The first were instant games, such as scratch-off tickets, which offered smaller prize amounts but more frequent winners. Later came games that offered jackpots of 10s or 100s of millions of dollars with low odds, such as Powerball. These games are now a staple of state advertising and generate much of the publicity for the lottery, helping to drive sales and increase prize amounts.

Despite the high stakes, the chances of winning are very small. The most common way to win a prize is by matching one or more of the numbers drawn in a drawing, but some games require players to match other criteria such as the number of correct answers to a question or the order of the correctly chosen letters in a word. The history of the lottery stretches back to ancient times, with records of keno slips in China’s Han dynasty between 205 and 187 BCE and of raffles in Rome that gave away slaves and property. The modern state lottery traces its roots to a Dutch invention in the 15th century.

In a world that has come to rely heavily on private-sector profits for government services, lottery revenues have become an increasingly important source of state income. But a lottery is not a substitute for sound public policy, and reliance on it may create perverse incentives.

State officials are not likely to give up on the lure of quick, painless revenue, especially in an anti-tax era, and pressures are always on to raise ticket prices and prize amounts. Ultimately, the lottery poses serious ethical questions about how far a government should go to promote gambling as an alternative to taxing its citizens. In addition to the moral issue of promoting gambling, there are practical concerns about how much money is lost to fraud and mismanagement, the potential for addiction and other problems, and the ability of the lottery to provide a stable source of public funds. These issues will continue to shape the debate over whether or not to expand state lotteries in the future. Copyright 2016 Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved. Available from the publisher’s website at: