Is the Lottery a Good Or Bad Thing?


Lottery is a popular pastime for many people, and there are a wide variety of games. Some are very simple, such as drawing numbers for a chance to win a prize. Others are more complex, such as a game of skill in which players attempt to correctly guess a series of hidden words or symbols on a card. There is no definitive answer as to whether lottery is a good or bad thing, but some people do have negative feelings about it.

In modern America, the lottery was first introduced in the late nineteenth century as a way for states to raise funds for infrastructure projects without the pain of raising taxes. The popularity of the lottery in the United States grew during the nineteen-thirties and forties as a result of the Great Depression and World War II, and a growing awareness of how much money could be made by playing. By the early nineteen-eighties, there was a national tax revolt as state governments found it more difficult to balance their budgets.

Cohen points out that lotteries are a form of gambling, but they differ from traditional gambling in that the players’ odds of winning are determined by randomness rather than skill. Moreover, there is a positive side to lotteries, which can be seen as a way of providing entertainment for a low cost. As long as the disutility of a monetary loss is not too high, and the non-monetary benefits are enough to offset it, then purchasing a lottery ticket is an acceptable option.

The lottery has a long history in the West, going back at least as far as the Roman Empire (Nero was an avid participant), and perhaps to ancient Greece. It is also found in the Bible, in which the casting of lots was used to determine everything from kingship to who would receive Jesus’s garments after his Crucifixion. Throughout this long history, the lottery has been a favorite method of raising funds for government programs and for the poor, with its prizes ranging from money to livestock to slaves.

In most cases, states establish a monopoly for themselves by legislating a lottery; a public agency or corporation runs it; and the lottery begins with a modest number of relatively simple games. Revenues usually expand dramatically in the early stages, then level off and eventually decline. To combat this trend, lottery officials are constantly introducing new games to maintain or increase revenues.

Although there are numerous criticisms of the lottery—including its problems with compulsive gamblers and alleged regressive impact on lower-income groups—Cohen believes that these issues can be dealt with if states approach the lottery as a form of public revenue. By promoting the lottery as a means of supporting public services that are popular and nonpartisan, such as education, veterans’ benefits, and elder care, politicians can make it more likely that voters will support its continued existence. In this way, the lottery has proven to be a remarkably effective tool for state funding in an era of declining federal resources and increasing anti-tax sentiment.