The Risks of Playing the Lottery

If you’ve ever played the lottery, you know that you can bet your money that you’re not going to win. But many people play anyway. They have all kinds of quote-unquote systems about buying tickets in groups or choosing certain numbers or playing only on certain days, and they spend thousands of dollars a month, not to mention their time and effort, trying to get a little edge over the long odds against them.

Historically, lotteries have been an important way for state governments to raise money for both public and private projects. During the Revolutionary War, Congress used lotteries to fund the Continental Army and Alexander Hamilton wrote that if “lottery games were kept simple, all will be willing to hazard trifling sums for a fair chance of considerable gain.”

In the United States, lotteries are now run by state governments and they have been responsible for building a vast array of public infrastructure. In the 1740s and 1800s, for example, lottery funds were used to pay for roads, libraries, churches, colleges, canals, bridges, and even some of the early buildings at Columbia University. In fact, during the colonial era, most of the colonies used lotteries as an alternative to taxes.

However, it is hard for public officials to manage a system that they benefit from and they can become dependent on a form of gambling. And that dependence makes the state vulnerable to pressures to increase revenues in an anti-tax era. State governments also struggle to maintain a coherent gambling policy because they make decisions piecemeal and incrementally, with little or no overall overview.