How the Lottery Got Into Politics
Lottery is a form of gambling in which a prize, usually money or goods, is awarded to people who buy chances in a drawing. The prize is distributed by chance or luck rather than by merit, and it can be very popular among those who are willing to pay for the opportunity to win. There are a variety of different ways to run a lottery, and they vary by jurisdiction. For example, some have a single draw while others use multiple draws, or they allow players to choose their own numbers or symbols instead of having the numbers drawn for them. The idea of casting lots for prizes has been around for centuries, and the first modern lotteries arose in the 15th century in Burgundy and Flanders where towns used them to raise money to fortify their defenses or aid the poor.
Lotteries are not the same as legal gambling, such as horse races or blackjack tables, but they have a similar appeal. The basic psychological theory behind them is that a person’s expected utility from a monetary loss is always outweighed by the pleasure of a possible gain. In the case of a lottery ticket, the winnings can be much larger than the cost of buying one. So in the short term, purchasing a ticket is rational for most people.
But the theory of the lottery begins to break down when you look at the bigger picture. Cohen argues that in the nineteen sixties, when states started to expand their social safety nets and take on more debt, it became difficult for them to balance budgets without either raising taxes or cutting services, both of which were extremely unpopular with voters. That’s when the idea of a lottery became appealing to politicians, who could promise that it would float state coffers and keep taxes low.
As the fervor for tax revolts grew in the late eighties and nineties, advocates of the lottery reframed the argument to emphasize that people were already spending on it anyway, so governments might as well reap the profits. That argument dismisled long-standing ethical objections and gave moral cover to people who approved of the lottery for other reasons. It also helped to disguise the regressive nature of the system.
The reframe didn’t last very long. Once people realized that the more money that was on the line, the less likely they were to win it, the enthusiasm for the lottery waned. Recognizing this, the commissioners began to change the odds of winning, offering lower odds of one in three million for bigger jackpots and higher odds of one in a hundred thousand for smaller ones. They also increased the number of tickets available for purchase, which increased the likelihood of winning.
In this way, the lottery was turning into a game of chance with an ugly underbelly. It’s not that many people don’t like to gamble – they do, in fact. But the fact is that most people will not be able to win a large sum of money in any kind of lottery, even if the odds are very low. So if you’re going to play, it makes sense to join a syndicate so that your money is spread out and your chances of winning are better.