Lotteries are the oldest form of gambling, and the most popular. People spend more than $100 billion each year on tickets, and state governments claim they’re a painless way to raise money for schools, roads, and other public services. Yet this reliance on the lottery obscures how much of the money comes from people’s wallets, and how big the odds are against winning.
In the fourteen-hundreds, towns across the Low Countries began holding public lotteries to build town fortifications and help the poor. The winners received a small pile of coins or pieces of paper, bearing the names of numbers drawn at random. A prize was sometimes awarded to the person who correctly guessed the most numbers, but the majority of tickets went to speculators, whose hopes for wealth were often crushed.
By the twentieth century, lotteries had expanded to include a wide range of prizes, from automobiles and television sets to baseball and football teams. But the popularity of these games was waning, as voters became more aware of how little they actually stood to win and began to doubt the integrity of their drawings.
Then, in the nineteen-sixties, a crisis erupted in state budgets. With state spending ballooning and populations growing, it became hard for many states to balance their books without boosting taxes or cutting services. But tax hikes were wildly unpopular with voters, and it was also impossible to find an alternative source of revenue that would not offend voters’ moral sensibilities. In this environment, the idea of a lottery as a quick fix for budgetary woes gained steam.
Advocates of the lottery argued that, since people were going to gamble anyway, the state might as well pocket some of the profits. This argument, however flawed, provided moral cover to states that might otherwise be hesitant to introduce a gambling program.
But Cohen argues that it’s not just morally problematic but economically dangerous for states to promote such a game. It encourages irrational behavior that can cause long-term harm, such as addiction, family problems, and gambling debts. It also diverts resources from programs that could make a real difference in the lives of citizens, such as health care and education.
As Cohen demonstrates, there are plenty of ways to avoid the lottery’s lure, from using Lotterycodex templates to knowing the probability that your combination will win. But, ultimately, it’s up to the players themselves to decide whether a chance at instant riches is worth the risk. Many of them do, despite the odds against them. That’s a choice that deserves scrutiny. After all, the same tactics that tobacco and video-game companies use to keep us hooked on their products are employed by state lottery commissions. It’s time to take a closer look at this lucrative but corrosive business model. After all, it doesn’t just hurt the economy; it makes society worse.