The Lottery and State Policy

A gambling game in which a number of tickets are sold, and prizes are given to those whose numbers are drawn by chance. A lottery may also be a method of raising money for some public charitable purpose, such as a building fund. Historically, lotteries were often organized by religious and charitable groups. In modern times, they are often sponsored by states or private companies. The word comes from the Latin for “drawing lots,” and has the same root as the English words “lottery” and “fate.”

As a form of entertainment, the lottery is relatively harmless; people who play it generally do so because they like to try their luck at winning something. But as an instrument of state policy, the lottery has profoundly destructive effects. Its appeal grows, Cohen argues, when states need more revenue to cover rising costs and an ever-larger safety net for their citizens. State governments are thus forced to choose between raising taxes and cutting programs, and neither option is a palatable choice for most voters. So many of them turn to the lottery, a solution that is cheap to implement and easy to rationalize, at least in principle.

Cohen argues that the rise of the modern lottery began in the nineteen-sixties, when growing awareness of the money to be made by running a gambling operation collided with a crisis in state funding. With the baby boom aging into retirement and inflation soaring, states began to face budget shortfalls that they could not easily resolve without raising taxes or cutting programs. The result was that, as states searched for solutions to their fiscal crises that would not enrage anti-tax voters, the lottery became more popular than ever.

Lottery officials are not above availing themselves of the psychology of addiction. Everything from the look of the ticket to the math behind it is designed to keep people hooked. The same kind of tactics have long been used by tobacco and video-game manufacturers.

While there is an inexorable human impulse to gamble, it is possible for people to limit their losses by playing the lottery responsibly. They should play only when they can afford to lose, and should not buy more tickets than they can comfortably afford to spend. Moreover, they should not think of the lottery as an investment or as a way to improve their lives; they should view it as a form of personal entertainment. If they do that, they will be more likely to win. Otherwise, they will continue to lose. It’s as simple as that. This article was originally published on wikiHow. It has been edited and updated.