What is the Lottery?


In the nineteen-sixties, a state-run lottery emerged when awareness of all the money to be made in numbers games collided with a crisis in public finance. For states with generous social safety nets, balancing the budget became impossible without raising taxes or cutting services—anathema to voters. Lotteries, in states like New Hampshire with no income or sales tax and an anti-tax electorate, seemed to provide a solution. They dangled the promise of instant riches and appealed to people’s natural inability to resist temptation, but there was a bigger dynamic at work.

Cohen’s article examines the evolution of this phenomenon, which he sees as emblematic of larger cultural and economic forces. It argues that the success of state-sponsored gambling is rooted in a deep-seated cultural propensity for chance and risk-taking. Lotteries appeal to the inextricable human impulse to gamble, but they also exploit other human proclivities—such as the desire to make sense of life’s vicissitudes and to live by a code of honor and morality—that can be manipulated by marketers.

The history of lotteries goes back centuries. The casting of lots to decide matters of fate has a rich record in ancient history—Nero was a huge fan of the Roman lottery—and is attested to in the Bible, where it is used for everything from divining Christ’s garments after his crucifixion to choosing kings and concubines. In the fourteenth century, lotteries exploded in the Low Countries, where they were used for everything from building town fortifications to distributing aid to the poor.

Despite strong Protestant prohibitions against gambling, lottery use spread to America during colonization and, in the early 1700s, helped finance many of the European settlement’s major projects. By the mid-nineteenth century, lottery use was widespread in Europe and America, and by the twentieth century it had become an integral part of American culture.

Lottery’s popularity has soared in recent years, as the economy has deteriorated and as a large segment of the population has lost wealth and purchasing power. But its proponents have developed a complex argument about what the lottery does for society. They contend that, when the proceeds are used to promote a specific public good (for example, education), the public will be more likely to support the lottery than if it were simply a source of “painless” revenue.

This argument ignores the fact that, as studies have shown, lottery funds tend to be spent mainly on things like advertising and administration, not on the prizes themselves. It also neglects the fact that the more prize money is boosted, the lower the chances of winning will be. As the odds of winning go down, ticket sales rise. That’s why, as the article points out, lottery commissioners have started lifting prize caps and slapping a whole bunch of numbers on each ticket, making the chances even worse. The odds of winning the next billion-dollar jackpot are one in three million. But the public is still buying tickets in droves.