Lottery Commissions and the Dangers of Covetousness

Lottery is a popular form of gambling in which people place bets for a chance to win a prize. The prizes are typically money or goods, such as automobiles and other consumer products. Many states have legalized the lottery and its proceeds provide a significant source of revenue for state governments. But, the lottery also raises concerns about morality, particularly the dangers of covetousness. Lottery advertising frequently entices people to gamble by promising that their lives will improve if they win the jackpot. The Bible warns against such hope: “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house, or his wife, or his male or female servant, or his ox or donkey, or anything that is his” (Exodus 20:17; see also Ecclesiastes 5:10-15).

Traditionally, lottery games consisted of people purchasing tickets for the chance to win a prize by drawing numbers or symbols from a hat. This type of lottery is sometimes called a raffle, although the term has become more generally associated with lotteries in which numbers are drawn at random. The first recorded lottery-type events took place in the Low Countries in the 15th century, when towns raised money for walls and town fortifications by selling tickets with prizes of various sizes.

The basic requirements for running a lottery include some means of recording the identities of bettors, their amounts staked, and the numbers or other symbols on which they bet. A lottery organizer then shuffles these items and draws winning tickets at random. A percentage of the pool is used for operating and promotional expenses, while a larger percentage goes to winners. A lottery organizer must also decide whether to offer a few large prizes or many smaller ones.

Lottery revenues usually expand rapidly upon launch, then level off and even decline. Consequently, to maintain or increase revenues, the lottery introduces new games. These innovations have transformed the lottery industry in recent decades. The first such changes involved reducing ticket prices and offering more frequent drawings, both of which increased sales dramatically. More recently, the lottery has begun to offer smaller prizes with higher odds of winning and more complicated game rules.

Until recently, the primary message that lottery commissions have communicated was that it is okay to gamble because the state benefits. This argument has proved remarkably resilient, in spite of the fact that studies have shown that state lottery revenues do not correlate with the overall financial health of a state.

The lottery is often considered a “hidden tax.” People may not realize that they are paying this tax, which is not explicitly stated in the constitution, by buying tickets. Moreover, the money spent on lottery tickets could be better used for other purposes, such as building an emergency fund or paying off credit card debt. Americans spend over $80 billion on lottery tickets every year, so the hidden tax is quite substantial. It is time for legislators to address this issue and clarify the terms of the lottery.