A Closer Look at the Lottery

A lottery is a game wherein people draw numbers or symbols to win prizes. These are usually monetary, but can be anything from property to slaves or even an airplane. Lotteries have long been popular. The practice is attested to in the Bible—Moses was told to divide the land among Israelites by lot—and Roman emperors used it during Saturnalia feasts. It is also common in the Low Countries, where town records show that lotteries have been used to raise money for towns and fortifications.

Today, state-run lotteries are ubiquitous. They are marketed as a way to improve public services—education, roads and bridges, prisons, etc.—and a tool for reducing poverty and crime. But these claims are often overstated, and many critics argue that lottery proceeds benefit only a tiny minority of state residents. Others claim that state governments are promoting gambling to raise funds for themselves.

In his new book, Michael Cohen takes a closer look at the modern incarnation of the lottery. The first state to launch a lottery was New Hampshire in 1964, and the rest followed within a few years. The move coincided with the national tax revolt of the late-twentieth century, as rising inflation and the cost of the Vietnam War made it increasingly difficult for states to balance their budgets without raising taxes or cutting services.

Cohen argues that the popularity of lotteries owes in large part to their ability to generate public goodwill. The funds they raise are portrayed as helping children, for example, and citizens feel that buying a ticket is their civic duty. But this argument is a bit misleading, as studies have shown that state government’s actual financial health does not influence the adoption of lotteries.

Another aspect of lotteries is that they are easy to understand and relatively inexpensive. They are a classic example of the fragmentation of power and authority in the modern world. As Cohen puts it, “lotteries are a rare example of an industry that is so large and so deeply rooted in the fabric of American life that it has become its own form of public policy.”

The most common type of lottery is the financial variety. These are similar to the scratch-off games that are available in convenience stores, where winners must match a series of numbers or symbols on the back of the ticket to those on the front. Another form of lottery is called the pull tab. The tickets have a number on the front and winning combinations on the back that are hidden behind a perforated paper tab that must be broken open to reveal them.

A third kind of lottery is the charitable variety, which draws on the generosity of private donors for funds. Charity lotteries are a staple of church fundraising and, in some countries, the government has also set up charitable lotteries. While they have some of the same characteristics as other forms of lotteries, their proceeds are generally much smaller than those of a financial lotteries.

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