The History of the Lottery

Whether it’s for the chance to become a multi-millionaire or the hope of escaping poverty, many Americans play the lottery. It’s a pastime with an ancient pedigree. Throughout the Roman Empire-Nero was an enthusiastic patron-and the Old Testament, lottery games were used to allocate property, slaves and other goods. In the modern era, states have legalized lotteries as a way to raise revenue for a variety of public projects and social welfare programs. This has been a remarkably successful strategy for state governments. Despite their regressive nature, the proceeds from lotteries are a reliable source of funds that have helped to finance everything from bridge repair to reopening Faneuil Hall in Boston.

Cohen traces the history of lotteries, but he’s especially interested in their modern incarnation, which began in the nineteen-sixties when growing awareness about all the money to be made in the gambling business collided with a fiscal crisis in most state budgets. With populations expanding and inflation rising, the economics of providing a generous social safety net in addition to paying for wars and other expensive government operations became untenable without either raising taxes or cutting services, which were deeply unpopular with voters.

As a solution, state legislatures legalized lotteries, setting up state agencies or public corporations to run them. They typically begin with a modest number of relatively simple games, and over time, due to constant pressure to generate additional revenues, progressively expand the portfolio. This expansion, in turn, leads to a cycle of ever-increasing prize pools and ever-more sophisticated games.

The early lotteries of Europe were usually deployed as a kind of party game. During the Roman Saturnalias, for instance, tickets were distributed to guests at dinner parties, who then cast lots for prizes such as fine dinnerware and even furniture. By the fifteenth century, however, public lotteries had begun to appear, especially in the Low Countries, where they were used to raise funds for town fortifications and charitable purposes.

During the American Revolution, Benjamin Franklin sponsored a lottery to finance a battery of guns for the defense of Philadelphia. Thomas Jefferson held one to help him pay off his crushing debts, and Alexander Hamilton grasped what would become the essence of lotteries-that everyone “would prefer a small chance of winning a great deal to a large chance of winning little.”

The rise of modern state-run lotteries in America, which started in New Hampshire in 1964, was fueled by the same logic. The more the odds of winning a big jackpot fell, the more people wanted to play; hence, in an effort to boost participation, commissions began lifting prize caps and adding new games. By now, the odds of winning a big jackpot have fallen to about one in three million-and yet lottery participation continues to grow. The reason is simple: People have come to believe that, if they keep playing, eventually they’ll win. In short, they think that the lottery is a foolproof way to get rich quick.

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