The Politics of the Lottery


Lottery is a game of chance in which prizes are allocated according to a random process. It has many facets, including picking numbers at a table, filling a vacancy on a team among equally competing players, placing students in universities, and so on. Its use as a decision-making tool is rooted in the belief that human beings have limited resources and a desire for them to be distributed as fairly as possible, with a minimum of interference by humans. The casting of lots for making decisions and determining fates has a long record in human history. The earliest lottery to distribute prize money was organized in the 15th century by towns in the Low Countries, to raise funds for town fortifications and to help the poor.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, a few states had state-run lotteries to generate revenue. These were often tangled up with the slave trade. For example, George Washington managed a lottery whose prizes included human beings; one of the winners was Denmark Vesey, who would later foment a slave rebellion in South Carolina. But the great majority of states did not have lotteries. Those that did often had them as an adjunct to their taxing system. In other words, the government figured that since people were going to gamble anyway, it might as well profit from this. This approach was both morally questionable and economically inefficient.

The fact that lottery proceeds were not derived from taxes meant that the state could pocket profits without having to pass them on to voters in the form of higher taxes. As a result, state lotteries have been a powerful political force across the country. The popularity of the lottery coincided with a decline in financial security for most working Americans. Incomes slipped, pensions eroded, and health-care costs rose. And the national obsession with winning a big jackpot in the lottery became a societal reality, fueled by the myth that hard work and education guarantee wealth for everyone.

To make up for this, advocates of state-run lotteries began to shift their arguments. Instead of arguing that a lottery would float most of a state’s budget, they now claimed that it would cover a specific line item—usually something popular and nonpartisan such as education or elder care. This narrower argument made for easy campaigning. It also gave some politicians the excuse to promote their lottery as a way of supporting veterans or public parks, or both.

In the end, however, this strategy proved insufficient to fend off criticism. Ultimately, it did not even provide any moral cover for those who approved of the practice. The reason is that, as Cohen writes, “Lottery sales increase when economic conditions deteriorate, such as when incomes fall, unemployment rises, or poverty rates rise.” And the more the odds of winning became distorted, the more people wanted to play. In effect, as Hamilton might have said, the public became addicted to gambling. This is what makes lotteries so popular, and why they are so difficult to kill.