In 1776, at the outset of the Revolutionary War, the Continental Congress voted to hold a lottery to raise money for the Colonial Army. This was not a new practice: private lotteries had long been popular in England and the United States as a way to sell products or properties for more than they would otherwise be able to fetch in a market setting. Lotteries were also tangled up with the slave trade in unpredictable ways. George Washington once managed a Virginia-based lottery whose prizes included human beings, and Denmark Vesey won a South Carolina lotter in which the prize was freedom; he then went on to foment a slave rebellion.
In the modern incarnation of the lottery, the money is raised by selling tickets that have a printed series of numbers; participants must match all or some of these to win a prize. In the case of state-run lotteries, a certain percentage of the proceeds are earmarked for a specific public purpose. The remainder, after expenses, including profit for the promoter, are deducted from the pool, goes into the prize pot. The prize values vary depending on how much the ticket costs, but they always involve a substantial amount of money that can be used to pay for many things.
The prevailing theory is that the lottery draws in people who might not ordinarily play, primarily because it provides a chance of an unexpected gain. This rational choice model works fine in some circumstances, such as a lottery to determine who gets admitted to a reputable school or who occupies units in a subsidized housing block. But it doesn’t work in other cases, such as a lottery to win a large cash prize or to find a cure for a deadly disease.
There are many reasons why the lottery attracts irrational gamblers, and most of them involve an inextricable human preference for risk. There’s also the unstated but implicit appeal of the lottery’s promise of instant riches in an era of inequality and limited social mobility. Moreover, it’s no secret that state lotteries use tactics designed to hook players and keep them hooked, just as tobacco companies or video-game manufacturers do.
Cohen’s narrative takes off in the nineteen-sixties, when a rise in awareness about all the money to be made in the gambling business collided with a crisis in state funding. The era of post-World War II prosperity, in which state governments could expand their array of services without burdening middle and working class taxpayers, came to an abrupt end, as inflation, the cost of the Vietnam war, and the growing population began to put a squeeze on state budgets. Lottery advocates began to spin a different narrative, arguing that the lottery would cover a particular line item, invariably a government service popular with voters that was also nonpartisan—education, elder care, public parks, or aid for veterans. This narrower argument was easier to sell, and the appeal of the lottery spread across the nation.