Is a Lottery at Cross Purposes With the Public Interest?

Lottery is a popular way to raise money. It’s also controversial, raising concerns about its impact on poor people and problem gamblers. But even if these problems are minimal, is a government-run lottery at cross purposes with the public interest?

The basic elements of a lottery include a pool or collection of tickets or counterfoils from which winning numbers or symbols are selected; a means for recording the identities and stakes of the bettors; and some method of thoroughly mixing the tickets or counterfoils prior to selecting winners. The latter may be accomplished by simple mechanical means, such as shaking or tossing, or more elaborately, with the use of computers capable of recording the ticket data and generating winning numbers.

It’s not easy to win the lottery, but it is possible. Harvard statistics professor Mark Glickman has some tips: choose random numbers; avoid picking sequences, such as birthdays, that hundreds of other people have played; and buy more tickets to increase your odds. But remember, there’s no guarantee you’ll get rich. “Even if you won the lottery every week for the rest of your life, you still would be a millionaire only if you have the right combination of numbers,” he said in a CNBC Make It segment.

Most states operate state-sponsored lotteries, with a legislative monopoly and a centralized agency or public corporation to administer the games. State lotteries often gain broad public approval by convincing citizens that proceeds benefit a specific public good, such as education. However, Clotfelter and Cook note that “a state’s actual fiscal health does not appear to be a major factor in whether it adopts a lottery.”