A lottery is a game in which tickets with numbers on them are sold for the chance to win money or goods. It is also a way to raise funds for public projects. Its roots go back to ancient times, and it was popular in the Roman Empire (Nero was a fan) and is attested to in biblical texts as a means of divining God’s will. During the colonial period in America, lotteries were used to help finance European settlement of the continent. They became common in the colonies themselves, despite Protestant proscriptions against gambling. The word itself appears to derive from the Dutch noun lot, a type of drawing or distribution, which was itself derived from Middle Dutch noot, the casting of lots.
The modern lottery is a massive industry. In the United States alone, state-run lotteries take in more than $150 billion a year. The money raised goes to education, health, social services, and public works. Some people also use the funds to retire or travel, but for most, it’s a way to get rich fast. And with billboards and commercials all over the place, it’s hard to miss.
What people really like about lotteries, Cohen writes, is the feeling that they are their last, best, or only shot at life’s big prizes. They are willing to endure long odds because of “the inescapable sense that, for all their problems and failures, there’s always one more way up—and that, somehow, the lottery is the path to that.”
There’s an element of truth in this, though the underlying reason is probably something simpler than that. A lot of people simply like to gamble, and the lure of a big prize is enough to convince many to purchase a ticket. The irrational behavior of buying a ticket, such as chasing a quote-unquote “system” that’s totally unsupported by statistical reasoning, may play a role, but so does the incongruity of seeing someone else win.
But, arguably, the biggest attraction of a lottery is not its entertainment value or the opportunity to win a big prize but rather its ability to make the state seem solvent. In the late twentieth century, when most states were struggling with aging populations and the cost of wars, they turned to lotteries as budgetary miracles: a way to maintain services without raising taxes, which they knew would be punished at the polls.
For state governments, the lottery’s appeal was its ability to generate revenue seemingly out of thin air. Even New Hampshire, famously tax averse, approved the first state-run lottery in 1964, claiming that its hundreds of millions in proceeds would free it from ever having to consider raising sales or income taxes. But the lottery was not a panacea, and the nation’s tax revolt intensified in the years that followed. It is, however, still a major source of government revenue to this day. It’s no wonder that so many people continue to buy their tickets.