The History of the Lottery

Lotteries are a bit of a puzzle. For all the talk about their supposedly low stakes and “harmless” nature, they seem to have a profound effect on the behavior of people who play them. They drive them to spend more than they might otherwise spend, even when they know the odds of winning are long. They buy tickets from multiple stores and at all hours of the day. They have all sorts of quote-unquote systems — totally unfounded by statistical reasoning, but nevertheless cherished by the players themselves — about which numbers or stores or times of day are best. They are awash in all the psychological tricks and motivational tactics that are familiar to video-game manufacturers or tobacco companies.

The simplest form of lottery involves paying money to enter a drawing for a prize. The basic elements are: a way of recording the identities and amounts staked; a mechanism for pooling those stakes, sometimes called the “pool”; and some method for selecting a winner. In modern times, this is usually done by using a computer. The computer records each bettor’s ticket number or other symbol; the bettor may choose to write his name on the ticket, or deposit it with the lottery organization for later shuffling and possible selection in the drawing.

In Cohen’s telling, the modern incarnation of the lottery began in the nineteen-sixties, when growing awareness of all the money to be made from gambling collided with a crisis in state funding. As population and inflation accelerated, the arrangement that allowed states to provide generous social safety nets while avoiding onerous taxes for the working class began to unravel. The states found themselves facing a choice: raise taxes or cut services. Both options were deeply unpopular with voters.

To solve the problem, some state legislatures began to introduce lotteries. Advocates of legalization argued that a lottery would generate enough revenue to cover a single line item in the budget, invariably some kind of popular and nonpartisan service, such as education or elder care. This approach was intended to make it easy for the voters to support the lottery: a vote for it was a vote for education or veterans’ benefits, not a vote in favor of gambling.

The results of the first few years of these efforts were striking. Instead of putting money into the state coffers, as it might have done in other circumstances, the lottery appeared to be creating a new and more dangerous addiction. The hysteria over the lottery’s potential for destroying families and communities is a consequence of the way the game has been designed. It’s a classic example of a product that depends on psychological addiction to sustain its market. The lesson is that the state should not be in the business of fueling addictions, whether by offering a scratch-off ticket or Powerball. It’s just not a great idea. For the sake of your family, and for the sake of public policy, think again before buying a ticket.