The Uncomfortable Truth About the Lottery

The Uncomfortable Truth About the Lottery

The lottery is a form of gambling whereby numbers are drawn for prizes. While it is often seen as a recreational activity, it has a serious underbelly that reveals some uncomfortable truths about our insatiable desire for instant riches and how that drives people to engage in risky behavior.

As early as the Han dynasty (205–187 BC), there are records of a lottery-like game called keno that was used to determine who received valuable objects like pottery. But it was not until the nineteen-sixties that state lotteries took off, Cohen writes. That’s when “growing awareness of all the money to be made in the gaming business collided with a crisis in state funding.” As state governments began running out of ways to balance their budgets without raising taxes or cutting services, politicians looked to the lottery as an apparent solution to their problem.

It turns out that lotteries are a good way to bring in a huge amount of revenue, and that’s exactly what the states wanted. In the era of the Great Society and the Vietnam War, states needed money to maintain their social safety nets. But raising taxes or cutting services were both unpopular with voters, so lawmakers came up with a new solution: the lottery. Lottery games grew in popularity around the world, as citizens embraced them for their ability to provide large amounts of cash to winners.

Most people buy tickets because they enjoy the entertainment value and other non-monetary benefits that result from playing, but some play because they believe there is a small chance of winning. In the latter case, the disutility of a monetary loss can be outweighed by the combined utility of those other benefits, so it makes sense to purchase a ticket.

Lotteries aren’t just about the prize; they also serve as a proxy for government spending. Despite strong Protestant proscriptions against gambling, colonial America relied on private and public lotteries to finance such projects as the building of Harvard and Yale, and to supply soldiers for the American Revolution. Lotteries even spread to England from the colonies, where they were legal despite British prohibitions on dice and cards.

Lottery promoters argued that because people were going to gamble anyway, the government might as well take advantage of it and pocket the profits. This argument dismissed long-held ethical objections to lotteries, and gave moral cover to white legislators who approved of state-run lotteries for other reasons. These included the belief that black numbers players would pay a higher proportion of the cost, and thus help the government to meet its racial equity obligations. This explains why many African-Americans have been disproportionately supportive of the lottery. It isn’t just that they covet the money; they also want to support services for the poor, including education in their urban communities. These are the people who most often vote for lotteries. They also tend to be the ones who play them the most.