Lottery is one of the world’s oldest pastimes. It is attested to in the Roman Empire—Nero was a big fan—and in Hebrew Scripture, where the casting of lots is used for everything from selecting the next king of Israel to who gets to keep Jesus’ garments after his Crucifixion. Lotteries became widespread in Europe by the fourteen-hundreds, and they were a popular way to raise money for towns to build walls, rebuild roads, and provide charity for the poor. They were also popular in England and America, where Protestants allowed them despite their proscription against gambling.
The modern lottery is a gambling device that uses a random procedure to allocate prizes. Some of these prizes are cash, while others may be property or goods that can be redeemed for cash in the future. Typically, these prizes are offered by governments for a limited time, and people pay to participate in order to win them. Modern lotteries also include commercial promotions in which property is given away for a fee or by random selection, and governmental activities such as military conscription and the selection of jury members.
In addition to promoting gambling, lottery advertisements stoke desire for the “fun” and “adventure” that winning the jackpot could bring. Moreover, the size of the jackpot draws attention to the game and increases sales. Consequently, many state lottery commissioners set their top prize amounts at apparently newsworthy levels—for example, three-hundred million dollars, which is the current Mega Millions jackpot.
When these prizes are advertised on billboards and television commercials, they’re designed to lure people into the game by promising riches they could not otherwise acquire. This strategy is not uncommon in the private sector, but it is unusual for a government agency to employ it. Lottery ads target vulnerable populations, such as the elderly, the low-income, and those who live in poverty. They often use sexy women and young children to appeal to these groups’ sense of longing for adventure.
Finally, lotteries exploit the psychology of addiction. Like tobacco and video games, they rely on the theory that once a person starts playing regularly, they will be hooked and want to continue. To increase the likelihood of that happening, they advertise huge, apparently newsworthy jackpots and gradually decrease the odds of winning them.
While these factors are all bad for society, there’s another important concern with the lottery. Playing the game as a get-rich-quick scheme is statistically futile and distracts the player from more important issues in life. It’s also a form of covetousness, which is forbidden in the Bible (see Exodus 20:17 and Ecclesiastes 1:9). As such, it’s a corrosive influence on our society. In the end, the lottery is an exercise in vanity and shortsightedness that should not be subsidized by taxpayers.