The lottery is the name of several types of gambling games in which people pay to purchase numbered tickets, or slips of paper with numbers printed on them, and hope to win prizes if the numbers match those drawn at random. It is a form of gambling that has been around for thousands of years. It has been used for everything from determining the distribution of property in ancient Israel to giving away slaves in Roman times. It is also an element of many modern social arrangements, from a random drawing for units in a subsidized housing block to kindergarten placements in a reputable public school.
The modern state-run lotteries first came to prominence in the nineteen-sixties, at a time when America’s postwar prosperity began to collapse under the weight of population growth, rising inflation, and the cost of the Vietnam War. Many states, particularly those with generous social safety nets, found it difficult to balance the budget without raising taxes or cutting services, which would be wildly unpopular with voters. In this atmosphere, the lottery emerged as a “budgetary miracle,” Cohen writes, a way for politicians to get new revenues without risking voter punishment.
In their early days, advocates of the lottery dismissed longstanding ethical objections and argued that since people were going to gamble anyway, governments might as well pocket the profits. The argument made sense on its face but was flawed, and it led to a series of abuses that strengthened opponents’ arguments.
Today, state lotteries are run as businesses, and they seek to maximize revenues. As a result, they spend huge sums on advertising and try to persuade as many people as possible to buy tickets. This marketing often comes at the expense of the poor and vulnerable, and it can even promote gambling addiction. Yet the state has an interest in the welfare of its citizens, and promoting gambling seems at odds with that goal.
Despite their ubiquity, few states have a coherent gambling or lottery policy. The decisions about how to operate a lottery are made piecemeal and incrementally, with little general oversight. Authority over the industry is fragmented between multiple agencies and partisans of various parties often jostle for control, with the result that few lotteries have coherent policies or programs. In addition, the business of a lottery is constantly changing, with officials seeking out new games, new strategies, and new ways to sell them. This tinkering undermines the ability of the lottery to provide a stable base of revenue. In a world where states are increasingly dependent on erratic revenue sources, that could be dangerous.