Lottery is gambling, and it involves risking something of value on an outcome that depends on chance. It’s a common activity in modern societies, both private and public, in the form of lottery games and commercial promotions that award goods or property by random procedures. Some of these are purely gambling types, while others, such as the selection of jurors, don’t fall under the strict definition of a “gambling” lottery because payment for a ticket is required (though the amount of money paid for the ticket may be relatively small).
One of the most interesting things about lottery is how much people want to play. It is a universal human impulse that has to do with the desire to control outcomes, to have power over life’s events. The lottery plays to this inextricable urge in a way that few other activities do. The huge jackpots are a big part of this, and the enormous sums of money attract huge crowds to the draw.
But there is a dark underbelly to this. While it’s true that many players buy tickets because they “like to gamble,” there are also a significant number who are playing in the hope that they will win, and some of these people may even be struggling with a gambling problem. In a way, the lottery is exploiting a vulnerable population in order to increase profits.
The history of lotteries is long and varied. The practice is mentioned in ancient texts, including the Old Testament and the Book of Leviticus, and it was used by the Romans to distribute land. Benjamin Franklin tried a public lottery in 1776 to raise funds for the American Revolution, and private lotteries were popular in England and the United States during the early nineteenth century.
Cohen’s book, though, focuses chiefly on the lottery in its modern form. This came about in the late nineteen-sixties, as state finances began to falter under the strain of inflation and the cost of the Vietnam War. Many states, particularly those that had generous social safety nets, were finding it difficult to balance budgets without raising taxes or cutting services, both of which were deeply unpopular with voters.
The result was that lottery advocates, no longer able to convince voters that a statewide lottery would float most of the state’s budget, started claiming that it would pay for a specific line item, almost always some kind of popular, nonpartisan government service—education, public parks, elder care, aid for veterans. This was a far more politically viable approach because it made it clear that a vote for the lottery was not a vote to endorse gambling.
It is worth noting, however, that while this strategy did allow for the lottery to survive, it didn’t allow it to thrive. As a result, the state-run lottery is today essentially a gambling industry that has a business model that conflicts with its mission to promote education and other social services. That is a troubling reality, and it’s worth exploring how the lottery got here.