The Lottery

A gambling game in which tokens are distributed or sold and the winners, after a drawing, receive certain prizes. The modern lottery is a popular way to raise money for state projects, but critics allege that it encourages compulsive gambling and has a regressive effect on lower-income people. The lottery also can serve as a substitute for raising taxes, which is politically unpopular.

In the nineteen-sixties, Cohen writes, a growing awareness of all the money to be made in the gambling business collided with a crisis in state funding. With population and inflation soaring, many states could no longer balance their budgets without either raising taxes or cutting services—both of which were highly unpopular with voters. So state legislators turned to the lottery as a way to raise tax revenues without angering voters.

Lottery advocates, he argues, dismissed long-standing ethical objections to gambling by arguing that if people were going to gamble anyway, the government might as well pocket the profits. This argument, he writes, provided moral cover for those who approved the lottery even though they had other motives.

Today, a modern lottery is run by computer programs that distribute tickets for a series of prizes. Prize amounts are based on the number of applications received and the odds of winning the top prize (which is paid in equal annual installments over 20 years, with taxes dramatically eroding the value). While many people play for the chance of winning the jackpot, most people buy tickets for other reasons: to experience a thrill and indulge in a fantasy of wealth; to socialize with friends; or, as one expert puts it, “to look upon life as a lottery.” Unlike the results of a raffle, which depend on the number of participants, the outcomes of a lottery depend only on luck.