The Evolution of the Lottery

The casting of lots to determine fates and material possessions has a long history in human society. Public lotteries offering tickets for sale with prize money, however, are much more recent. The first recorded ones were held in the Low Countries in the fifteenth century, raising funds for building town fortifications and helping the poor.

As far as lottery games go, they are no different from Snickers bars or video-games in that their primary goal is to hook players on the thrill of the next draw. State lotteries are not above availing themselves of the psychology of addiction, and they spend large sums on advertising designed to do just that.

Lotteries have broad popular support, but the nature of that support is changing. In the nineteen-sixties, Cohen explains, a new awareness of how much money could be made in gambling collided with a crisis in state funding. The era of post-World War II prosperity had come to an end, and state governments were facing a conundrum: they could either raise taxes or cut services, both of which would be unpopular with voters.

In the face of that challenge, state-run lotteries emerged as a way to raise revenue without imposing high taxes on the general population. As a result, in 1964, New Hampshire became the first state to introduce a modern lottery, and the rest followed suit within a few years.

Proponents of the new approach dismissed ethical objections by arguing that people were going to gamble anyway, so the government might as well get in on the action and pocket the profits. The argument was a powerful one, but it was flawed. It essentially assumed that gamblers were all rich and privileged, and ignored the fact that most of those who play lottery games come from middle-income neighborhoods, with significantly fewer players coming from upper-income or lower-income areas.

Moreover, many of the same concerns that accompanied the early days of the lottery persist today. The regressive impact on lower-income groups, the problem of compulsive gambling, and the question of whether lotteries should be considered a form of charity are still relevant.

Despite these issues, the popularity of lotteries remains robust. They are a permanent fixture in most states, and they serve many different interests. These include convenience store operators, whose profits depend on the success of lottery games; suppliers, who regularly contribute heavily to state political campaigns; teachers, who benefit from the earmarked revenues for education; and politicians who have come to view lotteries as an essential source of tax-free revenue. In other words, the lottery is a victim of its own success. And that is a lesson that should be heeded.