The History of the Lottery

The lottery is a process of giving people a fair chance to win something, usually a cash prize. It can be used in many ways, for example to fill a spot in a sports team among equally competing players or to distribute vaccines against a fast-moving disease. If the entertainment value of playing the lottery is high enough for an individual, he or she will be willing to spend money on tickets and will see the purchase as a rational choice.

The casting of lots to determine fates and raise money has a long history, including a few instances in the Bible; the first public lotteries to offer money prizes were probably in the Low Countries in the fifteenth century, but the concept was well established by the seventeenth. Lotteries were a major feature of the colonial experience in America, even though they violated Protestant proscriptions against gambling. They were also entangled with slavery—George Washington managed a lottery that offered human beings as prizes, and one formerly enslaved man, Denmark Vesey, won a South Carolina lottery and went on to foment a slave rebellion.

The main argument used to promote state lotteries has been that, since people would be gambling anyway (and often for a lot of money), it might as well be legalized and the profits plowed back into the government. The problem with this logic, as Cohen points out, is that it gives moral cover for those who support state-run gambling for purely political reasons. The rich do play the lottery, of course; but they buy fewer tickets than do the poor (except when jackpots approach ten figures). And they spend much less of their income on them, so the ticket sales have little impact on their bottom lines.