Running a Lottery at Cross-Purposes With Other State Functions


The casting of lots to decide fates and distribute property has a long history, from Moses’ census of Israel to Roman emperors giving away slaves by lottery. Lotteries, however, are not necessarily gambling and can be designed as processes that dish out something limited but in demand—say, kindergarten admission at a prestigious school or a unit of a subsidized housing block.

While the number of people who win the top prize may be tiny, super-sized jackpots can drive sales and earn free publicity on news sites and TV shows. But the big question is whether running a lottery at cross-purposes with other state functions—such as distributing welfare checks and paying teachers—is appropriate.

In a typical lottery, participants purchase tickets for a small sum of money and are given numbers to match in an upcoming drawing. The winner of the ticket gets the corresponding prize money—whether cash or goods, such as a new car or concert tickets. Some states require the lottery to be run by a state agency, while others permit private firms to operate it in return for a cut of the profits.

A successful lottery draws a broad public following, but it also cultivates specific constituencies—convenience store owners (whose receipts are usually earmarked for lottery promotion); suppliers of equipment and services to the lottery (who often make large donations to state political campaigns); and the hordes of eager, irrational dreamers who believe that a winning ticket will allow them to toss off their jobs and live forever in paradise.