The Ubiquity of the Lottery


The drawing of lots for wealth or privilege has a long history, beginning with the Old Testament’s instruction to Moses that land be distributed by lot. It was also popular in ancient Rome, where it was a common Saturnalian dinner entertainment (the apophoreta). More recently, the lottery has been a ubiquitous element of American society, with state-run lotteries raising billions annually and inspiring countless private ventures. The ubiquity of lottery play raises the question: what’s the appeal? The answer, Cohen argues, lies in the fact that human beings just plain like to gamble. In fact, many people devote a sizable portion of their income to buying lottery tickets. Whether it’s the huge jackpots, the low odds of winning, or the inextricable sense of excitement and adventure, there’s something about the lottery that appeals to us.

Lotteries are, at their core, a gambling game, and, as such, they rely on the same psychological mechanisms as other forms of gambling. They are addictive, and they can be irrational. But they are nevertheless an important source of income for a vast majority of states, and they have shaped the political culture in which most Americans live.

While the idea of a public lottery dates back centuries, the modern incarnation of the industry began in the nineteen-sixties, when the burgeoning prosperity of America collided with a financial crisis for many state governments. As a result of population growth, inflation, and the Vietnam War, many states found it difficult to maintain their social safety nets without raising taxes or cutting services, which would have been deeply unpopular with voters.

For politicians facing this dilemma, the lottery appeared to be a miracle solution, allowing them to rake in massive sums of money seemingly out of thin air. As Cohen explains, “the popularity of lotteries is not related to the state’s actual fiscal health; it rises and falls independently.”

When first introduced, lotteries typically start out small and with limited games. Then, to ensure continued revenue, they progressively expand their offerings in terms of prizes and complexity. This expansion is largely driven by the fact that as soon as the initial enthusiasm for a new lottery wears off, ticket sales usually decline—leading to a slump in revenues. This can be overcome, however, by introducing new games. In this way, the lottery has become a perpetual growth machine, fueled by its own addictive nature and the insatiable appetite for the chance to win big.