The Popularity of the Lottery


A lottery is a game in which people pay money for the chance to win a prize that depends entirely on random luck. This is a process that has been used in one form or another for centuries, and it has become a popular source of revenue for governments. In the United States, state lotteries raise billions of dollars every year, and people continue to play them despite the fact that the odds are extremely low of winning. Some of the money is spent on the prizes, but much of it goes to support other government services.

The history of lotteries is rich and complicated. They date back to ancient times, when Moses was instructed by God to divide land by lot, and Roman emperors used them to give away property and slaves. In the American colonies, Benjamin Franklin held a public lottery to raise funds for cannons during the Revolutionary War, and Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton both advocated private lotteries as an alternative to high taxes on farmers. In the nineteen-thirties and beyond, as America’s prosperity began to wane, states found it increasingly difficult to balance their budgets without raising taxes or cutting social safety net programs, and the popularity of the lottery rose.

Although some people buy tickets simply because they like to gamble, others think that a lottery is their last chance at a better life. They rationally expect that a large win will increase their expected utility, even though they know the odds are long. This is what explains why people continue to participate in the lottery, despite knowing that they are probably losing money.

But the irrational factor is also important. The winners of the big jackpots are not just lucky, they are irrationally euphoric. They believe that they have done nothing to deserve such good fortune. In this way, they have a different outlook on the world than most people, and it is not surprising that so many people buy tickets and hope for the best.

Cohen’s book focuses on how lotteries have won and maintained broad public approval, a dynamic he describes as the “revenue-as-tax” argument: the popularity of the lottery is not linked to the actual financial health of state governments; it is instead based on the perception that proceeds from the games will be used for a particular public service, invariably education. This argument has proven to be particularly effective in times of economic stress, when voters fear that tax increases or cuts in government spending will be inevitable.

But this ginned-up strategy may not be sustainable. When the public begins to perceive lottery revenue as a permanent fixture of state government, it is likely that the appeal of the lottery will fade. At that point, advocates will have to start arguing not about the value of gambling as such but about the value of a specific government service, such as education or elder care or parks and libraries.