In its simplest form, a lottery is an arrangement in which some tokens are randomly selected to win a prize. Its use dates back to ancient times. Nero, for example, loved lotteries, and they were common in the Roman Empire, where prizes included food, slaves, and even land. The modern version, however, started in the nineteen-sixties, when state budget crises brought on by inflation and the cost of the Vietnam War became overwhelming for some states, especially those with a big social safety net. In a nation defined politically by an aversion to taxes, lotteries offered politicians the possibility of raising money without angering voters.
The term derives from the Dutch noun “lot” meaning fate, which was used to refer to the casting of lots for everything from the selection of the next king of the Netherlands to the fate of a convicted murderer. The first state-sponsored lotteries began in the Low Countries in the fifteenth century, and were soon followed by England and America. Though the colonists firmly believed in Protestant proscriptions against gambling, they soon found that lotteries were a good way to raise money for civic needs—especially those of rural areas where voters could easily be persuaded that their tax dollars were going to the right place.
In addition to their financial utility, lotteries had other appeals as well. Some people, Cohen explains, regarded them as socially acceptable ways to sway votes by making a minority feel that it had more chance of winning than the majority. In addition, the fact that lotteries were based on pure chance made them seem morally unobjectionable to many white voters who otherwise would have been against legalizing them.
Moreover, the monetary value of a lottery ticket could be outweighed by the entertainment or other non-monetary benefits obtained by playing it. This meant that the disutility of a monetary loss could be outweighed by the expected utility of winning it, which made buying tickets a rational choice for a given individual. This argument, which disregarded the long-standing ethical objections to gambling, was particularly powerful in the United States, where abolition of slavery in the eighteenth century had left the country with a strong moral and ideological attachment to the notion that winning the lottery was an adipose-like act of self-betting.
But, as Cohen points out, the logic of this argument was flawed. The reality was that lottery tickets were not free, and the odds of winning were incredibly low. For this reason, people often cheated. They forged tickets, bought multiple ones, and sometimes used solvents to force the number to “bleed” through the concealed back layer of a lottery ticket—a practice known as wicking. In other cases, people teamed up to buy tickets together. These strategies have had varying degrees of success, but the overall effect has been to deflate the value of the lottery and make it less attractive for most people. A resurgence of interest in the game has occurred since the financial crisis of 2008. But it is unlikely that the lottery will be able to hold off a growing chorus of critics who argue that it’s simply not fair for some to reap the benefits while others suffer.