Is a Lottery Legal?


Lotteries are a form of gambling in which a prize (usually money) is awarded to a winner or winners by a process that relies on chance. Modern examples of this type of arrangement include military conscription and commercial promotions in which property or services are given away by lottery, as well as the selection of juries from lists of registered voters. Whether such arrangements are legal depends on the strict definition of gambling under state law. The practice has a long history, with lottery-like draws recorded in the Bible and used by ancient Romans to give away slaves and land. In colonial America, George Washington held a lottery to raise funds for the construction of the Mountain Road in Virginia and Benjamin Franklin supported the use of a lottery to give away land and cannons during the Revolutionary War. Lotteries grew to become widely popular in the nineteenth century, and by the early twentieth century, all fifty states had them.

The primary argument used by states to promote their lotteries has been the value of the revenue they generate for a specific public good, such as education. This point is especially persuasive in times of economic stress, when the prospect of tax increases or cuts in government spending is most feared by voters. Yet studies have shown that the objective fiscal condition of a state does not appear to have much influence over whether or when a state adopts a lottery.

When a lottery is run as a business with the goal of maximizing revenues, it must constantly advertise its products to potential customers. In the case of state-run lotteries, this advertising is done by a massive media campaign that targets groups such as high-school educated, middle-aged men, and women. This type of marketing is aimed at persuading these groups to spend their time and money playing the lottery. While these groups may represent an important source of revenue for state governments, it is worth asking if this promotion of gambling and the state-run monopoly that comes with it are appropriate functions for the government.

Most people who play the lottery understand that the odds are against them, but many feel they must participate because they believe that one day they will be the lucky winner of the big jackpot. This belief, which is at the heart of the lottery business, has created a culture in which people spend large amounts of time and money trying to find ways to beat the odds. They do everything from buying tickets only at certain stores and at certain times of day to creating quote-unquote systems that are totally unsupported by statistical reasoning.

The result is that most lottery players are not able to win. This is a tragedy for the individuals involved, as it is likely that their money could be better spent in other ways. But it is also a reflection of the larger culture of hopelessness and cynicism that has become prevalent in our society.