Why Play a Lottery?

In the United States, lotteries raise billions of dollars every year. Some people play them just for the thrill of it; others believe that a lottery win is their only shot at a better life. Either way, the exercise is deceptive: the odds are always against you, and the only thing that makes winning feel even remotely possible is that, well, somebody has to win.

The casting of lots for material gain has a long history, including some instances in the Bible, but state-run lotteries are relatively new. They are the result of a peculiar combination of meritocratic thinking and an old idea that government can never run out of money.

State lotteries typically follow a similar pattern: They establish themselves as a monopoly (as opposed to licensing private firms in return for a portion of the profits); hire an independent public corporation or agency to run them; begin operations with a modest number of relatively simple games; and then, due to constant pressure for additional revenues, progressively expand their scope. The result is that, in the course of just a few years, most state lotteries resemble what would happen if every dinner party guest were guaranteed to receive a prize–except instead of fancy dinnerware, each ticket holder might get some cash or other valuable item.

Once the system is in place, debates and criticism shift from the general desirability of a lottery to specific features of its operation, such as its potential to promote compulsive gambling or its regressive effect on lower-income groups. Despite these concerns, however, few states have abolished their lotteries.