The Lottery and Its Ugly Underbelly


In a small village on June 27, people assemble outside their homes, lining up stones and listening to Old Man Warner recite the old proverb: “Lottery in June, corn be heavy soon.” The lottery is a ritual of hope that is as familiar as the weather. But in recent years it has taken on an ugly underbelly, a sense of hopelessness in which many Americans have become trapped.

The problem, writes Michael Cohen in the New York Times, is that the lottery’s popularity coincided with a decline in the financial security of working Americans, beginning in the nineteen seventies and accelerating in the eighties. Pensions eroded, health-care costs rose, job insecurity became ubiquitous and the American promise that hard work would enable children to be better off than their parents was fading into history. Lotteries seemed to be the solution, an alternative to raising taxes and the political aversion to that option.

State politicians saw lotteries as a magic bullet, writes Cohen. They could claim that the proceeds would cover a specific line item, invariably education but occasionally other popular and nonpartisan services like public parks or aid to veterans. This made it easy for voters to cast a ballot for the lottery without seeming to support gambling or compromising their moral integrity. And it allowed legislators to evade the objection that they were raising taxes for general spending when the money came from gambling proceeds, which was tax-deductible.

But the real reason for lottery success was something much more pernicious: a desire to believe that you could win. It is a form of magic thinking, an attempt to make the improbable possible. And this is a kind of magic that doesn’t exist in the rest of life, only in the realm of chance.

In the earliest instances, lotteries were used for both entertainment and practical purposes. They were a common feature of Roman Saturnalias and attested to throughout the Bible, where casting lots was used for everything from who should be king to who should keep Jesus’ garments after the Crucifixion. They were also very popular in the 15th century in the Low Countries, where they raised money to build town fortifications and help the poor.

While most of these early lotteries were illegal, they were popular enough to spread England into America and to survive despite Protestant prohibitions against gambling. Today, state lotteries are legal and are a major source of revenue for most states. But they also send a confusing message. They argue that if you buy a ticket, even if you lose, you should feel good because you’re doing your civic duty to raise money for the state. This message is a misguided one for several reasons, including the fact that most lottery proceeds are actually spent on administrative expenses. This is an important point to consider when evaluating whether or not to purchase a lottery ticket. It’s important to weigh the potential disutility of a monetary loss against the non-monetary benefits you’d gain from playing.