Problems With the Lottery

A lottery is a gambling game in which tickets are sold for the chance to win large sums of money. The game is popular in many countries and raises billions each year for state governments. However, there are a number of problems associated with the lottery that have emerged as it has grown in popularity. One of the most significant is that lottery revenues typically expand rapidly after a lottery’s introduction but then plateau and eventually decline. This problem has led to the introduction of new games that attempt to maintain or increase revenues, such as video poker and keno. The other major problem with lotteries is that they are generally considered a form of taxation and can be a source of public discontent.

The origins of the lottery can be traced back to ancient times. It was a common pastime in the Roman Empire, when Nero was especially fond of it. It was also a favorite dinner entertainment during the Saturnalia festivities, when the hosts would distribute pieces of wood with symbols on them to guests and then hold a drawing for prizes that ranged from food and wine to slaves and property.

In the seventeenth century, Francis I of France was inspired by the Italian lotteries and decided to organize a national lottery in order to help finance his war campaigns. Although the lottery remained popular, Louis XIV’s attempts to manipulate the prize distribution system led to a loss of public support and it was ultimately abolished in 1836. Privately organized lotteries were also common in England and the United States and raised funds for a variety of projects, including building several American colleges such as Harvard, Yale, Dartmouth, King’s College (now Columbia), Union, and Brown.

Cohen’s book focuses on the lottery in its modern incarnation, which began in 1964 with New Hampshire’s approval of a state-run lottery. Inspired by this success, thirteen more states introduced lotteries in a few years. These were mostly Northeastern and Rust Belt states that could not afford to raise taxes or cut services in the face of rising inflation, rising unemployment, and the cost of the Vietnam War.

The result was that the state lottery became a major source of revenue for these states. But this arrangement was precarious from the beginning, because, as Cohen points out, lottery games generate substantial profits for operators but do not produce enough income to support the states’ existing social safety nets. The result has been a series of financial crises and political turmoil, with partisans arguing that the lottery is a victim of its own success. The controversy over the lottery is now shifting from a debate about whether it is a good idea to a more serious argument about its design, operations, and effects on society. It is a discussion that will likely continue for some time.