The Pros and Cons of the Official Lottery

Lotteries are a form of gambling in which something, usually money or prizes, is distributed by random chance. In the United States, state-run lotteries generate revenues of a few billion dollars a year. Typically, players pay a small fee in exchange for a chance to win the grand prize. While the practice is legal, many critics point to its unethical origins and question how much state coffers really stand to gain. Lottery opponents also argue that it deprives citizens of the opportunity to fund government services through voluntary taxation. Lottery critics arose from both the left and the right, but were most vociferous among devout Protestants, who regarded government-sanctioned lotteries as morally unconscionable.

In the fourteen-hundreds, Dutch towns used lotteries to finance town fortifications and, later, charity for the poor. The practice spread to England, where Elizabeth I chartered the first national lottery in 1638 and designated the proceeds for “reparation of the Havens and strength of the Realme.” In America, private lotteries flourished before the Revolution, and Benjamin Franklin organized one in 1748 to help pay for a militia. John Hancock ran a lottery to build Boston’s Faneuil Hall, and George Washington held one to raise funds for a road across the Virginia mountain pass.

In the late twentieth century, when states searched for budgetary miracles that would not enrage voters, Cohen writes, lotteries appeared to offer governments a way to maintain services without raising taxes. But the money they raise comes at a price: it is regressive, taking a larger share from those who can least afford to part with it.