Is the Lottery Morally Dubious?

Lottery is the most popular form of gambling in America. People spent over $100 billion on tickets in 2021. States promote it, claiming that winning the lottery is not just fun but a good thing, a way to help the kids. But what’s really going on is that the lottery is a morally dubious practice that has many of the same problems as other forms of gambling, including the potential for addiction and a variety of criminal acts associated with compulsive playing.

Lotteries are a common way for governments to raise money, particularly for a public or charitable purpose. Typically, a group sells tickets to players and then holds a random drawing to determine winners. However, the term can also describe any scheme in which something is distributed by chance.

The earliest recorded use of lotteries was by biblical Moses in the distribution of land, although it is possible that earlier religious rituals used similar methods to distribute goods. In ancient Rome, emperors often gave away property and slaves by lot as part of Saturnalian feasts and other entertainment. These lots were usually placed in a receptacle (such as a hat or helmet), and the winner was the one whose name or mark fell out first. This was known as casting lots; the expression to cast your lot with someone comes from the practice.

In the United States, state lotteries were popular during the colonial era to raise funds for the Continental Congress and the American Revolution. In the early nineteenth century, they became more widely used as a method of raising money for various causes, such as building colleges. These public lotteries helped build the Harvard, Dartmouth, and Yale universities, as well as the Union, King’s College (now Columbia), and William and Mary colleges. Privately organized lotteries were also widespread, both as a way to sell products and as a form of voluntary taxation.

Two popular moral arguments against lotteries involve the claim that they are regressive taxes, which burden different taxpayers at a higher rate than other taxes do. The argument goes that, since poorer people play the lottery more often than richer people, it is unfair to tax them in this way. Moreover, the argument goes, the fact that people spend so much on lottery tickets does not actually generate much revenue for states.

Nevertheless, state officials defend lotteries by asserting that the money they raise is a small drop in the bucket of state budgets and that it is an effective alternative to other forms of taxation. However, there is no statistical evidence that this assertion is true.

Rather, the evidence suggests that lottery profits are highly concentrated among a few large companies and individuals and are not distributed in an equitable way. In addition, the evidence shows that lotteries have not been especially effective in generating revenue for state programs. For these reasons, there is a strong case for reducing or eliminating state-run lotteries.