As with most public policy, lottery decisions are made piecemeal and incrementally. State officials are sucked in by the continuing evolution of the games they oversee and seldom have a clear, general overview. As a result, it is easy for the general public welfare to be overlooked.
Most of us think we understand why people play the lottery: it’s a form of gambling in which the chances of winning are long, and players are able to control how much they spend. The fact is, however, that there are far more insidious, and dangerous, aspects of the lottery that go unnoticed by most of its players and critics alike.
While the drawing of lots to make decisions and determine fates has a long history (including a mention in the Bible), lotteries that involve paying for the chance to win material prizes have a more recent beginning. They became popular in the American colonies, where they financed many projects, including building roads, libraries, colleges, canals, churches, and even cannons for defense of Philadelphia.
Today, state lotteries are run like businesses with a goal of maximizing revenues. As a result, they develop extensive specific constituencies, ranging from convenience store operators (who are the usual vendors for tickets) to suppliers of products that can be used to play the lottery to teachers, in states where lottery revenues are earmarked for education. The big question is whether or not governments should be in the business of promoting gambling.