The Politics of the Lottery

The lottery is a game where participants pay a small amount of money, select numbers (or have machines spit them out), and win prizes for matching those randomly drawn. It’s not a new idea: the drawing of lots to determine ownership or other rights is recorded in ancient documents, and it became commonplace throughout Europe in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries. Lottery games are run by state governments and other entities that grant themselves monopoly privileges in exchange for the profits.

States often start with a small number of simple games and progressively expand the portfolio. The reason for this expansion is to generate additional revenues and to compete with private lotteries, which offer a wider variety of games, and often charge lower prices.

A second reason for the growth of state lotteries is that their profits can be used to reduce or eliminate a state’s reliance on high-income taxes. This argument is particularly effective in times of economic stress, when people fear tax increases and budget cuts. It is also the basis for the claim that lotteries are a “harmonious way” to provide public services, especially education.

As a result, lottery profits are often used to replace income taxes and, in some cases, property tax. This has given lottery operators a unique power to influence the direction of state government, and they have used it to their advantage. Lottery officials are aware that their popularity is dependent on the perception of their good intentions, which they communicate to various constituencies: convenience store owners (the primary vendors for lotteries); suppliers (heavy contributions to state political campaigns are often reported); teachers (in those states where lottery profits are earmarked for education); and even legislators.