The Public Good and the Lottery

Lottery is a way of winning a prize by drawing lots, and people have been using the practice for thousands of years. It was common in the Roman Empire—Nero was a big fan of them—and can be found throughout the Bible, where lotteries are used for everything from distributing property to dividing slaves. It was even a popular dinner entertainment at the Roman Saturnalia, where hosts would pass around pieces of wood with symbols on them and, toward the end of the meal, hold a lottery for prizes that guests could take home with them.

It was also a common method of funding public works projects in colonial America, including roads, libraries, churches, and colleges. Benjamin Franklin held a lottery to raise money for cannons to defend Philadelphia against the British. And when American states began to face budgetary crises in the nineteen-sixties, balancing the books without raising taxes or cutting services became increasingly difficult.

So, when the promise of a big jackpot is flashed on billboards and radio commercials, the inextricable human impulse to gamble becomes a powerful lure for many people. And that’s what state lotteries are counting on.

But that’s not the only message they are sending. A key part of the lotteries’ appeal is that the money they raise goes to a specific public good, like education. This is an important point, and it’s one that is often overlooked when analyzing state budgets. But the truth is that the objective fiscal circumstances of a state do not seem to have much bearing on whether or not people approve of lotteries.