Are Lottery Operations a Public Good?

A scheme for distributing prizes, usually money, by chance. Lotteries are often promoted by government officials as a way of raising revenue without burdening taxpayers. Critics, however, charge that they promote addictive gambling behavior, are a major regressive tax on low-income groups, and contribute to the spread of illegal gambling activities.

Regardless of the specifics, most state lotteries follow a similar pattern: they begin with legislative monopoly; establish a government agency or public corporation to run them (as opposed to licensing a private firm in return for a percentage of proceeds); start with a modest number of relatively simple games; and, driven by constant pressure to increase revenues, progressively add new games to their portfolio. This ongoing evolution has created a classic case of a government policy being made piecemeal, with little overall oversight or direction from the legislature or executive branch and thus at cross-purposes with the broader public interest.

For many players, especially those who do not see much hope for themselves in the economy, lottery tickets provide value for money even when they lose. The irrational and mathematically impossible hope of winning, even just a few dollars, gives people something to look forward to in their lives.

But it is also true that most state lotteries are heavily promoted to a particular group of potential customers and are at risk of disproportionately attracting this group, with negative consequences for them and the society as a whole. As a result, some question whether lottery operations are appropriate functions for governments, given their inherent conflict between the desire to increase revenues and the duty to protect the public welfare.