The History of the Lottery


Since 1964, when New Hampshire became the first state to establish a lottery, it has been a boom time for gambling. States have used the proceeds to increase spending and build a variety of public projects. But, as Cohen argues, the popularity of lotteries has been driven not by a desire to improve public services or by a desire to raise revenue, as some have claimed, but by a perverse psychological dynamic. People who buy tickets for the lottery feel good about themselves, he argues, because they believe that they are doing something “good.” They are not only playing for money, they are also supporting their state, and this feeling of civic duty drives their purchasing decisions.

The practice of distributing property and fortunes by lottery has a long history, with several instances in the Bible. The casting of lots to decide matters of great importance dates back at least to the reign of Augustus Caesar, who used lotteries for municipal repairs in Rome. The first public lotteries to offer prize money appear in the 15th century in the Low Countries, where towns raised funds for town fortifications and poor relief.

But the most famous example of a lotteries in the modern sense of the word was the 1754 Massachusetts lottery, which awarded a single prize—one hundred and twenty-five thousand acres in the Massachusetts Bay Colony—to the winner. The lottery helped finance the settlement of the colony and many other projects, including the building of churches and colleges, canals and bridges, roads and fortifications.

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Americans continued to use lotteries for public and private ventures, although they often drew criticism from opponents who complained about monopolies, corruption, and other abuses. In the 1700s, the lottery was even tangled up with slavery, when Denmark Vesey won a South Carolina lottery and went on to foment slave rebellions.

Throughout the history of the lottery, one argument has consistently been made in its favor: it provides a painless source of revenue for the states. But there is a problem with this claim: the percentage of overall state revenues that lottery games bring in is tiny.

It’s also impossible to evaluate whether the lottery does what it claims, which is to “increase public welfare.” The fact that a certain amount of money is distributed to a limited number of players cannot, in itself, guarantee that the state benefits from this arrangement.

The real problem is that the lottery has become a kind of cultural myth, a fantasy of meritocratic wealth and social mobility. In the end, the only people who really benefit from it are those who can afford to play. And the odds that you’ll win are overwhelmingly against you. The only way that a lottery game will ever have the potential to make society better is if people stop believing in it and start believing in something else. Then maybe it’ll be possible to talk about a lottery system that makes sense.