The lottery is a national pastime that’s wildly popular, but how much does it really do for the state? In a new book, Daniel Cohen explores that question and finds that the answer is not very much. Lotteries have a complicated history, and they often run contrary to many people’s moral intuitions. Yet, as Cohen explains, in a world that’s short on revenue and long on needs for public works, lotteries became an increasingly popular source of funding.
They are a form of gambling, and as such are subject to many of the same moral objections as other forms of gambling, like casinos and sports betting. Yet they also have a key advantage: They’re less likely to generate the kinds of moral outrage and public disapproval that accompany, for example, a ban on heroin sales. As a result, in the early twentieth century, when states were searching for ways to raise money that wouldn’t upset voters, lottery advocates seized on the argument that if people were going to gamble anyway, it might as well be on something that would benefit the state.
In the early modern period, lottery proceeds were used for a wide range of purposes. In the 1500s, for example, they were a popular part of the entertainment at Saturnalian feasts in Italy. The practice continued in the Low Countries, where towns relying on the lottery to build town fortifications and provide charity for the poor were able to sell tickets for as little as ten shillings each.
The popularity of the lottery exploded in the nineteen-sixties, when it collided with a crisis in state funding brought on by population growth and rising inflation. In a society that had long favored a social safety net, balancing the budget became difficult without raising taxes or cutting services—both of which were deeply unpopular with voters.
One way around this problem, Cohen writes, was to introduce lotteries. They provided states with a solution to their fiscal woes that was politically palatable, especially for an electorate that had grown to be “defined politically by its aversion to taxation.” Over time, they also financed everything from civil defense to construction of churches. The Continental Congress even tried to use a lottery to help pay for the Revolutionary War.
Today, the lottery is a symbol of serendipitous wealth and good fortune, as evidenced by the title of Shirley Jackson’s story, “The Lottery.” But in reality, the most important thing the lottery does for state coffers is to give people hope—a glimmer of hope that, however irrational and mathematically impossible, they can win. And that’s a big deal, because it’s what makes people keep buying tickets.