A History of the Lottery

A lottery is a game in which numbers are drawn at random for a prize. Some governments outlaw it, while others endorse it and organize state or national lotteries. While the game has been around for thousands of years, its modern incarnation dates to the nineteen-sixties. That’s when a growing awareness of all the money to be made in the gambling business collided with a crisis in state funding. Faced with soaring inflation and the cost of the Vietnam War, many states, especially those that offered generous social safety nets, found it difficult to balance their budgets without raising taxes or cutting services. Both options were deeply unpopular with voters.

So they started to get creative. One of the more inventive ideas was the state lottery, which began in 1964 in New Hampshire, a notoriously tax-averse state. Other states soon followed suit, largely in the Northeast and Rust Belt. And it worked. Lottery spending boomed. And, counterintuitively, the odds of winning grew — to the point where even people who rarely gamble bought tickets.

Whether it was a way to win a new home or a car, or a lump sum of cash, the lottery seemed to be the answer for a state’s financial woes. But the success of the lottery has since raised doubts about how well it really works as a source of public revenue.

Cohen’s book is a history of the modern state lottery. It’s also a meditation on the morality of gambling and on the reasons people play.

In the early seventeenth century, when lotteries were first popular in Europe, they were ostensibly designed to benefit society by funding projects like bridges and canals or building colleges. But, as they became more common, it was also widely believed that they were a way for a state to extract “voluntary taxes” from the populace without raising general taxes. Alexander Hamilton endorsed the idea, saying that “everybody will be willing to hazard a trifling sum for the chance of considerable gain.”

Throughout the fourteen-hundreds and fifteenth centuries, state-sponsored lotteries were used as a means of paying for everything from town fortifications to the rebuilding of churches and other structures after disasters. Then, in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, they began to fund private ventures as well, including colleges. Columbia and Princeton, for example, were founded with lottery funds. And, by the early nineteenth century, privately organized lotteries were becoming very popular as a way to sell products and land.

Lotteries continued to be popular in the United States into the twentieth century, when, as Cohen writes, the nation’s late-twentieth-century tax revolt intensified. As a result, advocates of legalizing the lottery began to focus less on its ability to float a state’s budget and more on its potential to fund a specific line item in a government’s budget – usually education, but sometimes elder care or even public parks. This message resonated with voters, and the lottery’s popularity has continued to grow.