The Evolution of the Lottery

The casting of lots for material gain has a long record, beginning in biblical times with Moses’s instructions to divide Israel, and continuing through Roman lotteries, the sale of property to the emperors, and public lotteries to build buildings for Rome and England. Lotteries came to America with English colonists and became popular in the 18th century, even though Protestants discouraged gambling. They helped fund American colleges like Harvard, Yale, and King’s College (now Columbia), and George Washington sponsored a lottery to finance a road across the Blue Ridge Mountains.

The state lotteries of the modern era were launched in a time of fiscal crisis, and Cohen sees in them an attempt by states to find ways to maintain services without raising taxes, which they feared would trigger a political backlash. Lotteries were a “budgetary miracle,” as Cohen puts it, that allowed state governments to make revenue appear seemingly out of thin air.

Initially, state lotteries were little more than traditional raffles, where the public buys tickets for a future drawing. New innovations in the 1970s, however, dramatically transformed the industry. These included scratch-off tickets, which offered lower prizes but high odds of winning. They also allowed the lottery to compete with commercial casinos and video games that were gaining popularity at the same time. Lottery revenues grew rapidly, but over time, they leveled off and began to decline. In response, the lottery introduced a series of new games, and its revenues grew again.

Cohen shows that, despite critics who allege that lottery playing is just another form of taxation, a key driver of the industry’s evolution is the fact that states have an incentive to sell more and different products in order to increase revenues. This is because, as they introduce new games, state lotteries inevitably attract more attention and controversy. These debates, he says, often focus on questions such as the potential for compulsive gambling and the regressive impact on lower-income communities.

As the country entered a period of economic upheaval in the nineteen-seventies and eighties, these anxieties accelerated. Incomes dipped, retirement and health-care costs climbed, and the national promise that hard work and education would guarantee financial security for children of the middle class was fading. The lottery reflected the increasing desire of Americans to dream about unimaginable wealth and relive their childhoods of prosperity. The villagers in the novel “The Lottery” seem to embody this mindset: They kill someone at random every year, not for any reason other than that they draw the winning slip of paper. This ritual murder reflects an underlying culture of fear and insecurity, one that lottery proponents hope to inculcate in their audience. To do so, they must convince people that the lottery is not a tax on stupidity but a way of indulging irrational fantasies. They need to make the dream of wealth a reality for millions of people. In short, they need to repackage the lottery as a civic good.