The Lottery and Its Imbalancement

Whether it’s kindergarten admission at a reputable school, lottery slots in a subsidized housing block, or vaccines for a fast-moving flu, a lottery can provide an equitable distribution of scarce resources. But the lottery has an unusual feature that can create an imbalance: its promotion of gambling. It’s one thing for private companies to do this – think tobacco and video games – but it’s another when the state runs the show. The state’s promotional efforts put the lottery at cross-purposes with the general public interest.

A lottery is a game that dishes out prizes to participants based on a random selection process. The prize money can be monetary or non-monetary. It may be awarded for a specific event, like a contest or an election, or it can be awarded as a means of allocating a limited resource such as land or jobs. The casting of lots for a prize has a long history in human societies, including many instances in the Bible, and it was common during the Roman Empire (Nero was a fan).

To be considered a lottery there must be some mechanism for recording the identity and amount staked by each bettor. Typically, each bettor writes his name and/or a number on a ticket that is then deposited with the lottery organization for later shuffling and possible selection in the draw. Often, the ticket will include a box or section to mark to indicate that you agree with whatever numbers the computer selects for you.

If the odds of winning are very high, people will be willing to spend a large fraction of their income on tickets. This is why the biggest jackpots tend to have the most winners, and why rich people play a larger percentage of their income on tickets than poor people do. But the overall utility of a lottery purchase depends on how much a person values entertainment value or other non-monetary benefits.

In a perfect world, lottery decisions would be made by an impartial committee that takes the public’s welfare into account. But in reality, lottery decisions are almost always made piecemeal and incrementally, and with little or no overall oversight. This is true for both the creation of new lotteries and the evolution of existing ones.

This approach is a recipe for inconsistency and imbalance, particularly because the lottery’s marketing focuses on persuading low-income people to gamble their hard-earned dollars. The state’s promotional efforts, from the look of the ads to the math behind them, are designed to keep players hooked on the game. It’s a classic example of government officials making policies with no regard for the overall public interest, or even for their own financial success.