The History of the Lottery

In the small, rural village of Old Crow in western Wyoming, the villagers gather for The Lottery. They greet each other and exchange tidbits of gossip. A man who is something like the town patriarch clearly doesn’t approve, quoting a little traditional rhyme: “Lottery in June/Corn will be heavy soon.” The story ends with a twist that shows a deeper level of human evilness than even this village could have imagined.

The casting of lots to decide fates and distribute goods has a long record in human history, including several instances in the Bible. It became a popular way to give away land and slaves in the American colonies, and eventually reached Europe, where lottery games began to appear in the seventeenth century.

States tended to legislate their own monopolies, and establish a public agency or corporation to run the lottery. They often began with a modest number of relatively simple games and, driven by constant pressure for additional revenues, gradually expanded the program. This evolution was largely out of their control, as the specialized knowledge needed to run each new game required considerable time and investment.

Lottery advertising typically presents a misleading picture of the odds of winning the grand prize, and inflates the value of a winner’s prize (lottery jackpots are paid out in annual installments over decades, with inflation dramatically eroding the current value). Many critics also charge that the advertising glamorizes gambling by portraying it as a “fun” activity that should be enjoyed as a leisure pursuit, while obscuring its regressiveness and reliance on lower-income citizens.

As the popularity of lottery games has increased, state officials have looked for ways to increase revenue without enraging anti-tax voters. In the late twentieth century, a growing chorus of voices began to endorse the use of lotteries as a painless form of taxation. Cohen writes that some of these advocates dismissed the moral objections to gambling by arguing that, since people were going to gamble anyway, governments should simply pocket the profits.

But others feared that a lottery would attract black numbers players and impose costs on the rest of society. And a few white voters, worried that lotteries might encourage their own children to play, urged that government funds be used for a broader range of purposes, particularly education. These concerns were widely ignored. New Hampshire, famously tax averse, approved the first modern lottery in 1964, and soon states began to turn to lotteries as a way of solving fiscal crises without angering voters. The states’ growing reliance on lottery revenues has contributed to their growing political vulnerability. Consequently, they may find themselves in danger of losing their ability to fund vital services. They may also find themselves in danger of being forced to cut taxes on incomes and property. This is a recipe for a political disaster. It would mean a decline in the quality of education, law enforcement, and other essential services that voters want and need.