In the United States, people spend more than $80 billion every year on lottery tickets. They do this, despite knowing that there is no chance they will ever win. But, they still believe that winning the lottery will change their lives for the better. The reality is, though, that most winners end up worse off than they were before they won the lottery. The odds of winning are so low that it is actually more likely to be struck by lightning or become a billionaire than to win the lottery.
During the seventeenth century, public lotteries were common in the Low Countries, where they helped fund town fortifications and charity for the poor. By the fourteen hundred, the practice had reached England and America, where it was used to finance colleges such as Harvard, Dartmouth, Yale, King’s College (now Columbia), William and Mary, Union, and Brown. Privately organized lotteries were also popular as a means of raising money for specific projects, such as building ships or erecting houses.
Lotteries appeal to the sense of fair play and choice that underlies individual rights in a free society. But, they do so in ways that can be abused. Lotteries can be addictive, and the irrational behavior that often goes with it can lead to addiction and serious gambling problems.
One reason for this is that people tend to place a high value on the entertainment value of the lottery, even though it is not a particularly effective form of raising funds. People often have quote-unquote “systems” that are not based on any rational reasoning, such as picking certain numbers and buying their tickets at particular stores or times of day. They also tend to think that they are getting a good deal because the price of a ticket is low compared to other forms of entertainment.
Another factor is that the state’s need for revenue has made it a willing partner in lottery promotion. During the post-World War II period, states struggled to maintain their social safety nets without raising taxes that would be resisted by voters. Lotteries allowed politicians to raise vast sums of money from the general population, allowing them to keep taxes low for everyone but the wealthy.
This arrangement, as Cohen writes, worked to the advantage of white voters who favored state-run lotteries. They believed that they could lure black numbers players with promises of huge prizes, and then those African-Americans would pay for services that their own voters did not want to impose on them, such as schools in urban areas. This was a faulty logic, but it did allow state officials to dodge long-standing ethical objections to the practice. It was a budgetary miracle of sorts.