What is the Lottery?


Lottery, or the drawing of lots, is an arrangement in which something (often money) is distributed among a group of people by chance. It is a common method of raising funds for public projects such as roads or schools. The term lottery is derived from the Latin word lotta, meaning “fate” or “destiny.” The concept is ancient, dating back to Moses’s instructions in the Old Testament and the Saturnalian feasts of Roman emperors that gave away property and slaves. In modern times, state-sponsored lotteries have become a popular way to raise money for everything from public works to religion.

Despite the popularity of the game, not everyone agrees that it is a good thing. Some people argue that the lottery is a form of gambling. Others point out that it is a regressive tax because the poor tend to buy more tickets than the rich. Still others claim that it is harmful because it detracts from entrepreneurship, innovation, and the American dream of upward mobility. The truth is that the lottery has a complicated relationship with class and society, and it is hard to pin down exactly how it affects those who play.

In a book that aims to explain why so many people buy into this gimmick, Cohen describes how the lottery rose to prominence in America, beginning in the nineteen-sixties. Its emergence coincided with a crisis in state finances. A swelling population, inflation, and the costs of war left states struggling to balance their budgets. Increasingly, they had to choose between raising taxes and cutting services, and both options were deeply unpopular with voters.

To solve this dilemma, states turned to lotteries. New Hampshire launched the first state-sponsored lottery in 1964, and thirteen more followed suit within a decade. As a way to raise money for public projects without enraging an anti-tax electorate, the lottery proved to be a winner.

The popularity of the lottery was helped by an inextricable human impulse to gamble. But there was also, as Cohen argues, a powerful political dynamic at work. The late-twentieth century tax revolt, fueled by Ronald Reagan in the White House, sent state coffers into a decline, and the appeal of lotteries increased.

The idea behind lotteries is that, if an individual is sufficiently motivated by the desire for entertainment or some other non-monetary value, the disutility of a monetary loss will be outweighed by the expected utility of winning. And this is essentially what the lottery delivers—a chance to win an obscene sum of money for a few dollars down. The problem is that, as Cohen points out, the lottery does more than offer a dream of instant riches; it is also a promise to make life better than it is for millions of Americans. And sadly, it is working. The American dream is fading for many of us, as the income gap widens, job security vanishes, health-care costs rise, and the long-standing national promise that education and hard work will allow children to live better than their parents dries up.