As the name implies, lotteries are games of chance that award prizes based on random selection. Prizes can range from money or goods to services or even a sports team. Some states have their own state-run lotteries; others contract with private companies to operate them. Prizes may be a fixed amount of money or a percentage of total receipts. The most popular form of the lottery involves drawing numbers to determine the winner.
The concept of lotteries is as old as human civilization, but modern state-run lotteries have only been in existence since the seventeenth century. They emerged as a way to raise money for government-sponsored projects and to punish criminals. They quickly became popular in Europe, with profits used to build town fortifications and provide charity for the poor. They also helped finance European colonization, despite Protestant proscriptions against gambling.
When state governments grew increasingly dependent on lotteries in the nineteen-sixties, however, they found that there were limits to how much money could be gleaned from them. As population growth, inflation, and war costs soared, it became harder and harder for politicians to balance state budgets without either raising taxes or cutting services—both options wildly unpopular with voters.
For many states, lotteries seemed like “budgetary miracles” that allowed them to maintain current service levels without hiking taxes. Cohen argues that lotteries were essentially a “tax substitute,” allowing legislators to reframe gambling as something consumers willingly paid for the chance to win a prize. Unlike a regular tax, lottery proceeds are not visible to the consumer, which can make them more appealing to politicians.
In order to keep ticket sales strong, lotteries must pay out a respectable portion of their revenue as prize money—which detracts from the percentage of funds available for state revenue and spending on things like education. To counter this, lotteries promote a message that tells buyers they are doing their civic duty by buying tickets. But Cohen argues that this message is not backed up by statistics and is misleading to the consumer.
While lottery profits can help finance public works projects, they do not create new jobs or stimulate the economy as much as a tax increase would. And the opacity of lotteries makes them less appealing to some voters than tax increases, which can be clearly explained and understood by consumers.
Nonetheless, lotteries remain a major source of state revenues and continue to be popular with many voters. The question is not whether they should be legalized or not—the issue is how to use the money wisely. But the answer will require more than just a rebranding of the lottery as an alternative to taxes. It will require a deeper understanding of the nature of gambling and its impact on society. And it will require the courage to challenge assumptions about the nature of human greed and the power of chance. The future of the lottery depends on it.