The lottery is a game of chance in which players pay for tickets, select groups of numbers or have machines randomly spit out them, and win prizes if enough of their selections match those drawn at random. It has been used to fund public projects, from the Great Wall of China to a hamlet’s new road. But it has also become a popular way to award coveted private goods, such as units in a subsidized housing block or kindergarten placements at a reputable public school.
Lotteries are a form of gambling, and are often viewed as “harmless” because they do not involve the risk of addiction, bankruptcy, or other consequences of more traditional forms of gambling. But this argument ignores the fact that, even when they are conducted legally, state-sponsored lotteries are still games of chance that promote irrational spending. And, in doing so, they contribute to the growing problems of poverty and inequality that have accompanied our national love affair with unimaginable wealth.
A few decades ago, Cohen writes, “lotteries were a staple of state budgets, especially in the Northeast and Rust Belt.” In 1964, New Hampshire adopted the first state-run lottery of the modern era; it was soon joined by thirteen others. With states casting around for solutions to fiscal crises that would not enrage their tax-averse electorates, it is no surprise that lotteries grew in popularity.
In many of the state-sponsored lotteries, money is distributed to a broad range of uses: education, health and welfare services, infrastructure, etc. The most common form of a state-run lotteries is a drawing of numbers for a prize of cash or goods. This type of lottery has been practiced in Europe since the 15th century, with the oldest known records dated from 1445 at L’Ecluse, a small town in the Dutch province of Limburg. Other early examples come from towns in the Low Countries, where lotteries were used to raise money for town fortifications and to help the poor.
State-sponsored lotteries are a highly regulated business, with strict rules governing advertising and prizes. But, because they are run as businesses with a primary focus on raising revenues, their promotional campaigns necessarily take a gamble, with the goal of persuading people to spend large amounts of money. And, the advertising is not without its critics: many of these promotions are deceptive in ways that may be harmful to vulnerable populations.
Those who play the lottery often do not realize that their odds are long. They may have systematized their betting behavior, purchasing their tickets in certain stores at particular times of day, using “quote-unquote” systems that do not jibe with statistical reasoning, or believing that they are doing good by helping the state. But, when you look at the data, you see that state revenue from lotteries is actually fairly low compared to other sources. The real message that state lotteries are promoting is one of civic duty: you should buy your ticket and feel good about yourself because you are contributing to a better society.