Categories: Gambling

The History of the Lottery

The lottery is a form of gambling that involves drawing numbers at random for a prize. Some governments outlaw it, while others endorse it and organize a state or national lottery. In the latter case, a ticket purchase may make sense for an individual if the entertainment value and other non-monetary benefits exceed the disutility of a monetary loss.

Lottery has long been popular in Europe, where it was first brought to America by British colonists despite strong Protestant objections to gambling. In its early days, the lottery was often used to fund everything from church construction and civil defense to schools and even the Continental Congress’s Revolutionary War efforts. The concept soon became widely adopted in the United States, which had few other ways to raise money for public purposes.

In the nineteen-sixties, Cohen argues, an obsession with unimaginable wealth—as symbolized by enormous lottery jackpots—collided with a crisis in state funding. With inflation rising, the cost of the Vietnam War escalating, and social-security payments shrinking, many states faced the prospect of either raising taxes or cutting services, both options that would be deeply unpopular with voters.

In the midst of this fiscal storm, a new crop of advocates emerged. They argued that if people were going to gamble anyway, the state might as well take in some of the proceeds. This argument disregarded the ethical objections that had long accompanied state-sponsored gambling, but it gave political cover to people who approved of lotteries for other reasons.

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