Lottery Gambling – Is it Appropriate for States to Promote Gambling?

The casting of lots to decide fates has a long record in human history, including several instances in the Bible. The first recorded public lottery was organized by Augustus Caesar to raise money for municipal repairs in Rome. In the Low Countries, in the early 15th century, towns held lotteries to give away town walls and fortifications. A number of different ways to buy tickets and win prizes have evolved, but the modern state-sponsored lottery focuses on selling chances to be rich for cash or goods.

Lottery players come from many different backgrounds and demographics. But they all share an inextricable desire to gamble. People play for the chance to change their lives for the better, to escape the grinding drudgery of everyday life, to take a risk in hopes of winning big. And they know the odds are long.

They also know that the state benefits from their purchase of a ticket, a message that states are quick to trumpet. State officials and supporters point out that the vast majority of lottery revenue outside the winnings goes back to the state, where it is used for a broad range of purposes, from supporting gambling-addiction recovery programs to funding highway construction or police forces.

But if the bulk of lottery funds aren’t benefiting the poor, and if lotteries are being run as businesses that depend on maximizing revenues, the promotion of gambling should raise some questions. Is it at all appropriate for state government to encourage its residents to spend their money on a process that depends solely on chance?