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Moral Hazards of the Lottery

The practice of drawing lots to determine a distribution is documented in a number of ways throughout history, including in the Old Testament (when Moses was instructed to take a census of the people and divide land by lot) and the Roman empire, when emperors gave away property and slaves. The lottery is the modern form of this ancient practice. It is a popular gambling game that raises significant money for states. In the United States, it is the most popular form of gambling with a total of over $100 billion spent on tickets in 2021. It is a major source of revenue for state government, and is promoted by politicians as a way to increase spending without imposing onerous taxes on the general public.

But the fact that the lottery relies on chance also means that it is a highly risky endeavor, and there is reason to be skeptical of its benefits. There is a certain amount of “moral hazard” associated with state-sponsored gambling, especially when it is marketed to specific groups: convenience store operators; suppliers who are known to make heavy contributions to political campaigns; teachers in states where lottery revenues are earmarked for education; and the broader population who spends large amounts of money on ticket after ticket hoping to win the big prize. This is a gamble that many people are willing to take, but the moral and ethical issues raised by this arrangement deserve close attention.