The False Message of the Lottery Commission

Throughout history, people have used lotteries to distribute property, slaves, and other goods. The Old Testament has Moses distributing land by lot; the Roman emperors had Saturnalian feasts where guests were given pieces of wood with symbols drawn on them to determine prizes they would take home.

Modern state governments use lotteries to raise money for many kinds of projects. They argue that the public will willingly risk a small amount of money in return for a substantial chance of great gain. The states say that this “voluntary tax” is more popular than raising taxes, and it is less politically fraught. The argument is flawed, however, because it doesn’t consider that the objective fiscal circumstances of the state have little to do with whether or not a lottery wins broad public support.

One message that lottery commissions rely on is that it is a fun thing to do, that the experience of scratching a ticket is enjoyable. This is a false message that obscures the regressivity of lottery gambling and encourages people to gamble more than they ought.

A more honest message is that it is a bad thing to do. It is a game of chance that can lead to addiction and ruin lives. It is also a form of compulsion that can cause people to lose more than they can afford, and it should not be encouraged by government. The good news is that there are ways to minimize the damage. One is to avoid superstitions, hot and cold numbers, and quick picks and instead play random numbers that have a high ratio of success to failure. Another is to play in a group and pool the money for tickets. The more tickets purchased, the better the odds of winning.