Public Policy and the Lottery

The lottery is a game in which participants pay for a ticket and then try to match numbers drawn by machines. It’s a popular pastime in the United States, where players contribute billions of dollars annually to government coffers. Some play for pure fun, while others see the lottery as their ticket to a better life. Regardless of their motivation, lottery tickets have a high risk-to-reward ratio.

Lottery games are a classic case of public policy that evolves piecemeal and incrementally, with little regard to the overall public interest. Typically, state governments establish a monopoly and set up a public corporation to run the lottery; begin with a small number of relatively simple games; and then, driven by constant pressures for additional revenue, progressively expand the lottery’s size and complexity.

When state officials promote the lottery, they often argue that it is a “voluntary” tax on citizens and therefore should not be criticized for increasing the costs of government services. This argument is particularly effective in times of economic stress, when it can be used to dispel fears of tax increases or reductions in public spending.

But, while the monetary value of lottery prizes is low for most people, non-monetary benefits can make the tickets a rational purchase. The lottery doesn’t care if you’re black or white, rich or poor, Mexican or Chinese, republican or democratic, short or tall, fat or skinny – the only thing that matters is whether your numbers are the ones that hit.