The Myth of the Lottery


Lottery is a game in which people purchase tickets with numbers on them; those with the best numbers win a prize. Some governments ban the practice, while others endorse and organize state-controlled lotteries to raise money for various public uses. In the United States, lottery profits are allocated among different recipients in a manner determined by each state. In FY 2006, the total amount of lottery profits distributed in this way was $17.1 billion. The word lottery is derived from the Dutch noun lot, meaning fate or fortune. Most state-sponsored lotteries are financial in nature, and participants bet a small sum of money for the chance to win a large prize.

In the 16th century, people began to buy and sell tickets with numbers on them for prizes of cash or goods. The first recorded lotteries were held in the Low Countries (Ghent, Utrecht, and Bruges) to raise money for poor relief. Later, they were used to fund town fortifications and other civic projects. In the 17th and 18th centuries, lotteries were popular in colonial America. Benjamin Franklin sponsored a lottery in 1776 to fund cannons for the defense of Philadelphia. George Washington sponsored a lottery in 1768 to pay for roads across the Blue Ridge Mountains.

Today, state-sponsored lotteries are common in most developed countries. They are often regulated by laws that limit the number of tickets sold and the size of the prizes. Some also have age and location restrictions. The prizes may be either fixed amounts or a percentage of ticket sales. In the latter case, the prize can be paid out in a lump sum or annuity payments. The winners are required to pay income taxes in most cases, and the tax rates vary by jurisdiction.

The odds of winning a major jackpot are extremely slim. Only about 1 in 100 players will win the top prize. Moreover, the prize money tends to be distributed unevenly. Many lottery players are disproportionately lower-income, less educated, and nonwhite. Despite these facts, most people believe that the lottery is a good source of painless revenue for government programs.

The problem with this argument is that it relies on the myth of the “reasonable man,” who is assumed to have a rational understanding of risk and odds. However, the evidence shows that most people who play the lottery do not understand probability and have a tendency to overestimate their chances of winning. As a result, they often overpay for the tickets. And even when they do not win the lottery, many still feel that they have “done their civic duty” to support state government. This is a dangerous assumption. It can lead to irrational behavior and moral corruption. It can also create a sense of entitlement. This article argues that state governments should abandon the notion that they are responsible for creating this irrational behavior and allow citizens to take responsibility for their choices. In the end, this approach will be more effective in reducing lottery spending and promoting financial literacy.