There are lots of different lottery games, from a chance to win units in a subsidized housing block to kindergarten placements at a reputable public school. But the one that draws the most attention is the financial lottery, where participants pay a small sum to get big cash prizes based on the chance that their numbers match those randomly spit out by machines.
This is a game whose roots go deep. A Middle Dutch word, loterie, means “drawing of lots,” and the practice dates to ancient times. Moses was instructed to divide the land of Israel by lot, and Roman emperors used it for giving away property and slaves at Saturnalia celebrations. By the fourteen-hundreds, cities in the Low Countries were using lotteries to build town fortifications and provide charity for the poor. In early America, a land that was defined politically by an aversion to taxation, lotteries grew in popularity. Harvard, Yale, and Princeton were financed by them; the Continental Congress even considered using one to help pay for the Revolutionary War.
In the modern era, however, lotteries began to take on a new meaning. They became a source of state revenue, and states like those in the Northeast and Rust Belt eagerly embraced them. In the nineteen-sixties, as the baby boomers pushed the economy into high gear and inflation rose, it became more difficult for states to maintain their social safety nets without either raising taxes or cutting services. Lotteries provided a way to balance budgets while remaining popular with voters.
People may be drawn to lotteries for a variety of reasons, from the inextricable human impulse to gamble to the desire to improve their lives by winning money. They also provide an escape from the stifling drudgery of everyday life, and they give hope that things will improve. In an era of inequality and limited social mobility, that hope is not insignificant.
But the biggest reason for lottery success, Cohen argues, is that it provides a way to buy a little bit of comfort. The odds are that you will lose, but, as the jackpots grow to newsworthy sums, those who play the lottery have a couple of minutes, hours, or days to dream, and to imagine what it would be like to win. It’s that irrational, mathematically impossible hope, not the money, that attracts so many players. And it’s why the huge prizes drive ticket sales. Unlike a lot of other government programs, the lottery is not subject to the political fluctuations that affect so many other public goods. It just keeps growing. And growing. And growing. And growing. And in the end, that’s what wins the lotteries.