In the modern sense of “lottery,” we usually think of the drawing of numbers for a prize, but the concept goes back much further. Humans have long used chance to decide important matters and even their fates, a practice documented in the Bible and by many ancient cultures. And in recent times governments have embraced lotteries as a means to raise money and expand services without irritating an anti-tax electorate.
The first state lottery in the United States was introduced by New Hampshire in 1964, and more than a dozen others followed, mostly in the Northeast and Rust Belt. At the time, states were facing budget crises but couldn’t raise taxes. Politicians saw lotteries as “budgetary miracles,” writes Cohen, allowing them to keep up current services without rousing the populace at large.
Lottery critics have since focused on its effect on compulsive gamblers and its alleged regressive impact on lower-income groups. But these criticisms miss the bigger picture, which is that lotteries primarily operate as a kind of public service, a way to bring people in who might otherwise be uninterested or unable to afford other forms of recreation or entertainment.
That’s why lottery advertising is everywhere, and that’s why so many people play. In the end, it’s not the glitz and glamour or the high jackpots that attract players—it’s the inextricable human impulse to gamble. And that’s why the billboards beckon: The odds are long, but you never know if your lucky numbers will be drawn.
Those who play the lottery are not stupid; they are just making a financial decision. It’s a bit like buying a new car or a house, but it is less expensive and more risky than most other investments. And it’s also a way to get a little extra cash without taking on a debt or going to work.
Some of the largest prizes in history have been won in the lottery. During the American Revolution, Benjamin Franklin ran a lottery to raise funds for cannons to defend Philadelphia; a private lottery was held to help Thomas Jefferson pay off his crushing debts. And during the early nineteenth century, privately run lotteries raised money for colleges including Harvard, Dartmouth, Yale, King’s College, Union, and William and Mary. In addition, many American lotteries were tangled up in the slave trade, with prizes ranging from land to enslaved people; George Washington managed one of these.