The Truth About the Lottery


A competition based on chance in which numbered tickets are sold for prizes, the numbers being drawn at random. It is a form of gambling and sometimes also of charitable fundraising. Lotteries have a long history in Europe and the United States, going back to Roman times (Nero was fond of them) and the Bible, where casting lots for everything from who gets the kingship to the garments that Jesus Christ was wrapped in is cited. During the fourteen-hundreds, they became common in the Low Countries, and were used to finance town fortifications and even charity for the poor.

When the lottery was introduced in the United States, politicians saw it as a way to provide state services without hiking taxes—and thus without angering voters. This was a time when the nation’s tax revolt was growing, with voters demanding that governments spend less and tax more. In 1964, New Hampshire began the modern era of state lotteries, and others followed suit, largely in Northeastern states that were already facing budgetary crises.

From the start, state-run lotteries were a political and financial success. Lottery advocates dismissed ethical concerns, arguing that people were going to gamble anyway, so why not let the state get in on the profits? This argument, though flawed, gave cover to those who approved the programs.

Like all gambling, the lottery is addictive. The chances of winning are slim, but there’s always a glimmer of hope—that this time, the prize money will be enough to save your family from ruin or solve an intractable problem. And that’s why advertising for the lottery is so relentless: it’s designed to convince you to spend your hard-earned dollars on a shot at an ever-increasingly distant jackpot.

Cohen argues that state-run lotteries are inherently at cross-purposes with the public interest. By promoting a form of gambling that’s both addictive and harmful, they encourage gamblers to spend more than they can afford—and, often, to spend their children’s inheritance. They promote the fantasy of unimaginable wealth, which is at odds with America’s long-standing national promise that education and hard work would allow everyone to make a good life for themselves and their children.

But it’s not just that, Cohen argues. The promotion of the lottery is also problematic because it’s part of the larger effort to promote a consumer culture that’s increasingly detached from any sense of community or loyalty. And, he writes, the state’s promotional tactics are at odds with its constitutional role in protecting individual rights. Ultimately, the lottery is just another example of how the market has become a law unto itself.