The Public Interest and the Lottery


A lottery is a system of raising money in which tokens are sold and a drawing is held to determine winners. The prizes are usually cash but can also be goods, services, land or other items of value. Lottery operations are generally run as businesses with a primary objective of maximizing revenues. This business approach creates the potential for a conflict between the goals of the lottery and other state and local government priorities.

Lotteries are popular because they raise large sums of money with very little effort. They are easy to organize and operate, and attract a broad base of general public support. In states with a lottery, 60% of adults report playing at least once a year. The appeal of lottery plays extends to many different groups, including convenience store operators (the main vendors for state lotteries); lottery suppliers (heavy contributions by lottery suppliers to state political campaigns are frequently reported); teachers (in those states in which lotteries’ revenues are earmarked for education); and state legislators (who quickly become accustomed to the extra revenue).

While the state has a major interest in running a successful lottery, it also has a duty to act as a steward of the general public’s welfare. As such, it must consider how much its promotion of the lottery diverts attention from other priorities and is at cross-purposes with the broader public interest.

Historically, the lottery has been used by governments to fund public projects. In the 1700s, for example, the colonies used lotteries to fund roads, libraries, churches, colleges, canals and bridges. Lotteries also played a significant role in financing the American Revolution; Benjamin Franklin, for example, ran a lottery to raise funds for cannons to defend Philadelphia.

The first European lottery was organized by towns in Burgundy and Flanders as a way of supplementing municipal finances. Francis I of France authorized the establishment of a state lottery in 1539, but the Loterie Royale proved to be a failure. Other unsuccessful state lotteries were attempted in Spain and Italy in the 16th and 17th centuries, but the appeal of lotteries was waning.

Today, state lotteries are marketed as a form of tax-free gambling. But the truth is that lottery proceeds do not fully cover operating costs, which are growing rapidly. Moreover, research shows that lottery play is disproportionately lower among low-income populations than in other demographics. Those who play regularly should consider other ways to save money such as investing in an emergency fund or paying off credit card debt. They should also be aware that the odds of winning are extremely slim – most winners go bankrupt within a few years.