The Unintended Consequences of Playing the Lottery

People spend upward of $100 billion on lottery tickets in the United States each year, making it the most popular form of gambling in the country. Many state governments promote it as a way to raise revenue without the heavy cost of taxation, which can burden working families. Whether that money is well spent is debatable, but it’s clear that lottery participation is ubiquitous—and it may have some unintended consequences.

The earliest recorded lotteries were held in the Low Countries in the 15th century, with towns raising funds to build town fortifications and help the poor. These were not the modern, commercialized games that people purchase tickets in convenience stores and play online, but they were similar in design. Participants paid a small sum of money for a chance to win a prize ranging from food or goods to cash or land.

In the early 17th century, public lotteries were common in the British colonies and helped finance roads, libraries, churches, colleges, canals, and even military ventures. They also provided funds for supplying soldiers for the American Revolution and financed a number of colleges in the Americas, including Harvard, Dartmouth, Columbia, and King’s College (now Columbia). In the 18th century, private lotteries were popular as well, and they provided a means to sell products and property for higher prices than might be possible in a normal sale.

One of the most significant consequences of lotteries is that they feed people’s insatiable craving for money and the things that it can buy. It is not surprising, then, that people often feel they can solve their problems if they could just hit the jackpot. But that hope is deceptive, and God forbids covetousness in the Bible (Exodus 20:17, 1 Timothy 6:10).

There is, of course, an economic rationality to playing the lottery. If the entertainment value and other non-monetary benefits are high enough for an individual, the negative utilitarian disutility of losing a small amount of money is outweighed by the expected utility of winning the prize. That’s why a lot of people choose to play, even though they know it is likely that they will lose.

But the truth is that it is very difficult to get anything of lasting value from the lottery, which is why it is a good idea to only participate in it for fun and not as a means of getting something you really need or want. A recent Gallup poll found that more than half of Americans have purchased a lottery ticket in the past 12 months, but those who have the most to gain from the lottery are not always those with the highest incomes. The real moneymakers are the businesses that make the machines and sell the tickets, not the winners who think their small investments will pay off in big prizes. That’s why the ill-informed rumor that everyone can win is so dangerous: it encourages people to play recklessly and to believe that their lives will be dramatically improved by winning the lottery.