The Lottery Distorts Democracy

Lottery is a form of gambling in which a prize is awarded based on the drawing of lots. The word lottery comes from the Dutch for “fate” or “chance.” The casting of lots to determine fates and property rights has a long history, including several instances in the Bible and a number of ancient Greek public games to distribute slaves. The modern state lottery is a relatively recent innovation, however; the first American state to establish one was New Hampshire in 1964. Since then, almost all states have adopted it.

The modern state lottery has become a highly successful enterprise, generating large revenues and profits and generating substantial political support. Its popularity stems in large part from the huge prizes offered by most lotteries, which draw publicity and attention for the resulting free advertising they receive on newscasts and websites. In addition, the large jackpots often carry over to the next drawing, attracting new players and increasing ticket sales.

But the large prize amounts also create problems, especially when the winnings are taxable. For example, the tax burden can be heavy for winners if they are residents of high-income states or cities, where taxes and other state and local fees are already comparatively high. The enormous jackpots also create a perception that lotteries are rigged, and some people refuse to play them.

Another issue is that lottery proceeds are largely diverted from the general public to specific constituencies, such as convenience store operators (who sell tickets), suppliers and vendors of goods and services to the lotteries (who make heavy contributions to state political campaigns), teachers in those states where lottery revenues are earmarked for education, and state legislators who have come to depend on the revenue. Lotteries thus distort democracy by rewarding certain groups and harming others.

In a broader sense, the state lottery is a classic case of the way in which policy decisions are made by piecemeal and incremental steps, with little or no overall oversight. As a result, the lottery’s evolution is driven by a constant pressure for additional revenue and a growing dependency on these funds. There is no coherent “lottery policy” in most states, and the public welfare is rarely taken into account in this context. The result is a series of distortions in democracy and the economy.