The History of the Lottery

The casting of lots for decisions and fates has a long record in human history, including several instances in the Bible, but lotteries as a way to win money are relatively recent. In the modern era, they are state-sponsored and state-run and are characterized by three basic elements: the government establishes a monopoly on lottery operations; establishes a public agency or corporation to run it (as opposed to licensing a private firm in exchange for a share of profits); and then begins operating with a modest number of relatively simple games. It then, due to constant pressure for additional revenues, progressively expands the range of games offered.

Cohen explains how the lottery began to be seen as “a state budget miracle,” appearing as an alternative to raising taxes or cutting services, both of which are highly unpopular with voters. In the late twentieth century, when a combination of demographic change, rising inflation, and the war in Vietnam threatened state budgets, many politicians hoped to spruce up the lottery as a way to balance their coffers without provoking a tax revolt.

Because lotteries are a form of gambling, and because they are designed to maximize revenue, their advertising necessarily focuses on persuading people to spend their money on them. This raises a host of ethical questions, including whether it is appropriate for the government at any level to promote gambling. It is particularly troubling when the state is the operator, since it has a direct financial interest in increasing its profits.