The lottery is a fixture of American life. People spent upward of $100 billion on tickets in 2021, making it the country’s most popular form of gambling. It has a number of important functions, including raising money for state governments. But how meaningful that revenue is and whether it’s worth the trade-off to people who lose money are issues that deserve some scrutiny.
The modern lottery began in the northeastern United States, Cohen writes, where people with larger social safety nets realized that they needed a lot more revenue than was coming in. They figured that people would be willing to pay for a trifling chance of winning, so the government should exploit this. This was an ethical argument that had its limits – the same logic could be used to justify selling heroin – but it gave moral cover to those who approved of the gamble for other reasons.
So, to promote the new game, they changed their pitch. They stopped arguing that the lottery would float a state’s entire budget, and started claiming that it would fund just one line item: invariably a government service that was popular and nonpartisan – like education or public parks or aid for veterans. It wasn’t a perfect argument, but it was much easier to sell than the claim that lottery funds would essentially pay for a state’s entire budget.
As the games became more popular, jackpots got bigger and bigger. The prize amounts drew attention from the press and public, driving ticket sales. And, as Hamilton pointed out, the better the odds of winning, the more people wanted to play. So, a million dollars in a five-digit pot wasn’t just more desirable than a thousand dollars in a two-digit pot; it was exponentially more so.
Increasingly, the commissioners of these lotteries took note of this counterintuitive phenomenon and made it more difficult to win the top prizes, thus keeping the interest alive. They also allowed the jackpots to roll over more often, giving them more of that all-important free publicity on newscasts and websites.
Finally, and this may be the biggest factor, people simply love to gamble. The thrill of having the potential to rewrite your life with the stroke of a pen is an intoxicating prospect. And, for all of the stories about winners who end up broke, divorced and even suicidal, there’s no shortage of people who have used their winnings to achieve a measure of success.
So, maybe it’s not as crazy as we think. It’s an inextricable human impulse, and lotteries exploit it for their own ends. But, before you spend your hard-earned cash on a ticket, be sure to consider all the other ways you can rewrite your life. And, whatever you do, don’t get sucked in by those big jackpots. There’s plenty of evidence that they’re largely the result of an unfair system. Good luck!