The casting of lots for making decisions and determining fates has a long history, including many instances in the Bible. But the lottery is more recent, with its first recorded use for public distribution of prizes being in the Roman Empire for repairs to the city. Lotteries became popular in the United States as well, mainly as an alternative to paying taxes. They raised funds for projects in the colonies, such as Benjamin Franklin’s unsuccessful attempt to secure enough cannons for defending Philadelphia.
Since state lotteries evolved into big business, they’ve become a major source of revenue for states and the federal government. Their advertising strategies are geared towards persuading people to spend their money on tickets. This raises important questions about the ethics of promoting gambling, and whether the promotion of lotteries serves the public interest.
In addition to the obvious question of whether it’s right to encourage people to spend their hard-earned money on chance, lotteries also have a number of other issues that should be considered. One is that they’re dangling the promise of instant riches in an age of growing inequality and limited social mobility. Another is that by advertising the sexy prizes and the huge jackpots, they are stigmatizing poorer members of society.
The underlying dynamic that creates these problems is that state lotteries often evolve piecemeal, with little general oversight. Their policies are determined by a series of stakeholders: convenience store operators; suppliers of lottery products (who make heavy contributions to political campaigns); teachers (in those states in which the proceeds are earmarked for education); and legislators, who quickly grow dependent on lottery revenues.