The History of the Lottery

Gambling Sep 24, 2023

Lottery is a form of gambling, an arrangement in which one or more prizes are awarded by chance to those who take part. It’s also a common form of entertainment, an activity that can be used to give attendees at parties or other events a little sliver of hope, the possibility that they will win a prize for their efforts. This practice dates back millennia: the Old Testament instructs Moses to take a census and divide land among Israel’s tribes by lot, while Roman emperors used lotteries to give away property and slaves at Saturnalian feasts.

In the modern era, Cohen writes, state-run lotteries emerged in response to a crisis in public finance. During the nineteen-sixties, as a growing population and inflation put increasing strain on state budgets, many states were in danger of either raising taxes or cutting services to balance their books. Both of these options were unpopular with voters, so officials turned to the lottery as a way to raise money while keeping tax rates low.

Advocates of the new state-run lotteries argued that, since people were going to gamble anyway, governments should allow them to do so with the added benefit of pocketing some of the profits. This argument had limits—if, for example, government officials began selling heroin in order to boost coffers, it would be difficult to argue that the decision was ethically sound—but it did reframe the debate in favor of legalization.

Lotteries grew in popularity throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, providing funds for roads, libraries, churches, colleges, canals, bridges, and other projects. In colonial America, they played a major role in financing the American Revolution and helped to finance the construction of Harvard, Dartmouth, Yale, King’s College (now Columbia), and other institutions.

But the lottery’s defenders were soon forced to change their tactics. No longer able to sell the idea that a statewide lottery could float most of a state’s budget, they shifted their arguments to emphasize the benefits that the revenue would bring to a single line item, usually education but sometimes elder care or parks or veterans’ affairs. This approach, while allowing them to maintain the ethical veneer of their cause, was still misleading, as lottery proceeds rarely cover even one per cent of a state’s total spending.

But perhaps the most telling aspect of the lottery debate is how irrational it appears to those who are on the losing side. It’s hard to imagine how anyone can spend $50 or $100 a week on lottery tickets and believe they are not being duped. To those outsiders, it looks as if lottery players are in denial about their chances of winning, or, more to the point, that they enjoy the game because they think they’re not being duped. The fact that lottery revenue is most heavily promoted in poor, Black or Latino neighborhoods further reinforces this impression. For these reasons, Cohen’s story about Tessie, a middle-aged housewife who is a longtime player, is a deeply troubling read.