The Lottery and the State

The Lottery and the State


Lottery is a form of gambling in which numbers are drawn at random to determine the winners of prizes, such as cash or goods. It is an increasingly common way for state governments to raise money. Its popularity has grown even in times of economic stress, as the proceeds can be earmarked for something the general public supports, such as education. However, the fact that lotteries promote gambling can have adverse consequences, particularly for poor people and problem gamblers. Furthermore, the promotion of gambling raises questions about whether it is an appropriate function for the state.

Cohen argues that in the modern era of state-run lotteries, popular support for this type of gambling has been based on two false premises. First, lottery advocates have argued that it would float a government budget and prevent tax increases or cuts in services. This argument was often successful in gaining public approval for the lottery. But this claim misled the public about what the lottery really does. The truth is that, as a revenue-generating business, lotteries are inherently biased toward the rich. They attract players from middle- and upper-class neighborhoods, while the poor and the unemployed are largely excluded. In addition, the large profits of lottery promoters skew the results, as they often do in other businesses.

The history of lotteries is a fascinating one. The earliest lotteries were a common means of raising funds in the Low Countries in the fifteenth century, and were sometimes used to fund town fortifications or to provide charity for the poor. Eventually, they made their way to England, where in 1567 Queen Elizabeth I chartered the nation’s first lottery, and stipulated that the proceeds were to be for “reparation of the Havens, strength of the Realme, and to help the poor.”

In the early American colonies, colonists relied on lotteries to finance settlement of the continent, and the lottery helped spread English culture across America, despite Protestant proscriptions against gambling. It was also a feature of the slave trade, and a source of income for enslaved blacks. Denmark Vesey won a prize in the Virginia lottery that allowed him to buy his freedom, and his winnings were later used to foment slave rebellions.

After legalized gambling exploded in the nineteen-sixties, Cohen argues that public awareness of all the money to be made by lotteries collided with a state funding crisis. Inflated population growth, rising inflation, and the cost of the Vietnam War had strained state finances. Balancing a budget without raising taxes or cutting services was difficult, as these were very unpopular with voters. In response, state legislators adopted a new strategy. They began selling the idea that the profits of a state’s lottery could be dedicated to a specific line item of government service, such as education or veterans assistance. This shift in rhetoric shifted the ethical arguments in favor of lotteries, as they became less about people gambling for their own profit and more about the state making money off those who did so.