Is Running a Lottery a Legitimate Function for the State?

A state-sanctioned game in which tickets are purchased for the chance of winning a prize based on random selection of numbers or symbols. State lotteries typically establish a legal monopoly; choose a government agency or public corporation to run the operation (as opposed to licensing private firms in return for a portion of the revenues); begin with a small number of traditional games; and, due to the constant pressure to increase revenues, progressively introduce new and more complex games as time goes on.

The notion that governments should promote gambling as a means of raising revenue is not without its critics, and in recent years debate has shifted from the general desirability of a lottery to criticism of specific aspects of its operations, such as the problem of compulsive gamblers and the potential regressive impact on lower-income groups. The fundamental question, however, remains: Is running a lottery a legitimate function for the state?

When viewed from the perspective of the average American, lottery playing seems irrational and perhaps even dangerous. But there is another way to look at it: For many people, especially those who live in states with low job prospects or little hope for the future, lottery plays represent an opportunity to dream and to escape the drudgery of daily life. This value, even if it is only temporary, is worth paying for. And it is this value that has prompted millions of Americans to spend billions of dollars on lottery tickets every year.