An Official Lottery

An official lottery is a competition, involving tickets bearing numbered numbers, that aims to distribute prizes according to chance. It is often used to raise money for a public project or charity. Although state lotteries are a subject of much debate, the arguments for and against their adoption, and the structure of the resulting lotteries, have a remarkable uniformity.

The modern revival of the lottery began in New Hampshire in 1964, and since then lotteries have become established in every state, with remarkably similar structures and operations. States legislate a monopoly for themselves; set up an agency or public corporation to run the lottery (instead of licensing a private firm in return for a share of the profits); begin operations with a modest number of relatively simple games; and then, because they are under constant pressure to raise revenues, progressively expand the lottery in size and complexity.

State lottery officials are not immune from criticism, and their responsibilities and pressures are frequently misunderstood. They are lightening rods for voters who believe that a lottery is a tax on the stupid, and they face the pressure of being told to promote their product and increase revenues. Yet they operate in a context in which authority is fragmented between legislative and executive branches, and even within each of them. The resulting lottery is a classic example of public policy that is made piecemeal and incrementally, with the general welfare taking center stage only intermittently.