The Ethics and Social Issues of the Lottery


A lottery is a gambling game whereby tickets are purchased for a chance to win a large prize. The prizes may be money, goods, or services. Many states have legalized lotteries to raise funds for public purposes. Lotteries are a popular source of revenue, raising more than $100 billion per year in the United States alone. The government at every level has a stake in these games, as they are an important source of tax revenue. However, there are significant ethical and social issues with state lotteries. One of the biggest problems is that the governments that profit from these games are constantly under pressure to increase revenues, and often they do so by increasing the size of the jackpots. This is a form of crony capitalism that allows a few people to benefit from the activities of a government that otherwise taxes its citizens.

In the 1940 story, “The Lottery,” a small village holds an annual lottery, drawing numbers from a black box. As they do so, the villagers engage in casual chatter and some gossip. An old man, who seems to be the town patriarch, clearly doesn’t approve of the lottery and quotes a traditional rhyme: “Lottery in June/Corn will be heavy soon.”

The story is a parable that illustrates the tension between preserving traditions and allowing a form of gambling that has little basis in tradition or fact to continue. The villagers in the story have a strong emotional attachment to the black box and its traditions, but there is no logical reason that they must keep it. They would probably just as easily have continued using wooden chips, or some other relic of their past, to play the game if it wasn’t for this tradition.

While the story is fictional, the idea of a lottery has a long history in America, both as a public and private enterprise. In colonial America, lotteries were a common method of financing public projects, such as building churches, colleges, canals, and roads. They also helped finance the Jamestown Colony and other private ventures, despite the fact that Puritans condemned gambling as a sin.

State lotteries are a classic case of the piecemeal nature of public policy, in which decisions are made at the local and individual levels without much of a larger picture in mind. Rather than establishing a public corporation to run the lottery, as some other countries have done, the American states have established state agencies to manage the games. These agencies are, in effect, monopolies that have grown through the pressure of constant demand for increased profits.

Unlike private casinos, which are legally required to pay income and sales taxes to the government, lotteries have no such requirement. As a result, they are able to avoid paying a substantial share of their profits in taxes. This structure enables the games to offer attractive jackpots that draw in new players and increase sales. This approach, however, runs at cross-purposes with the state’s responsibility to promote a safe and responsible gaming environment.