Do Lotteries Promote Covetousness?

The lottery is a popular form of gambling in which participants purchase tickets for a chance to win a prize. The prizes can be cash or goods. The game is organized by a state or private organization. In some countries, the government regulates the lottery to prevent it from being used for illegal purposes. The odds of winning are based on the number of tickets sold and the probability that the drawn numbers will match the winning combination. Despite the popularity of lotteries, they are subject to widespread criticism. Some critics argue that they are addictive and have a negative impact on society. In addition, others are concerned about the social costs of lotteries, including their regressive effects on lower-income people.

The first state to introduce a lottery was New Hampshire in 1964. Since then, nearly all states have adopted them. While the arguments for and against introducing a lottery vary from one state to the next, they tend to follow a similar pattern: The government legislates a monopoly; establishes a state agency or public corporation to run the lottery (as opposed to licensing a private firm in return for a percentage of profits); begins operations with a small number of relatively simple games; and, due to constant pressure on revenues, progressively expands the lottery’s size and complexity.

In order to attract a large audience, state lotteries must advertise extensively. This necessarily focuses on promoting the jackpots and other large prize amounts to convince people to play. But does the promotion of gambling also promote its negative consequences? In particular, do the promotions stoke the flames of envy in those who are not lucky enough to win?

Among the many things that are wrong with lotteries is that they encourage covetousness, an emotion that is not only unproductive but often destructive. The Bible forbids coveting: “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house, his wife, his servant, his ox or donkey, his mill or anything that is his.” Lotteries are particularly dangerous because they promise the impossible: that if you buy a ticket and win, all your problems will disappear. This is a lie, as the writer of Ecclesiastes argues: “There is nothing better for a man than to find satisfaction in his work.”

It is important to recognize that, while many of the state-sponsored lotteries’ advertising messages are designed to appeal to a broad base of the population, they also target specific constituencies. These include convenience store operators; lottery suppliers, who are known to make heavy contributions to state political campaigns; teachers (in those states in which a portion of lottery revenues is earmarked for them); and state legislators. By targeting these groups, lotteries can achieve considerable mass penetration and generate significant revenues. As a result, they are likely to remain popular and to grow even more.