The Official Lottery

The official lottery is a machine that turns money into prizes, and, like all machines, it’s not without its faults. In the case of state lotteries, it reflects an American mindset that is at once pragmatic and naive.

In an era when states were desperately short on revenue and long on needs for public works, they found that the lottery was a quick way to raise funds without putting a strain on morals or raising taxes. During the 1830s and 1840s, state lotteries exploded, and the Louisiana State Lottery Company was so powerful that, as Cohen writes, it essentially operated as a national lottery, sending advertisements and selling tickets across borders.

Nevertheless, lottery games continue to exist and to thrive in America, partly because of the fact that, as Cohen puts it, people “like having a flutter” and because they believe the odds are good that they will win. In recent decades, lottery commissions have worked hard to downplay the regressivity of the games and have focused on two messages:

One is that the games are fun; players can play scratch-offs, Instant tickets, Keno Drawings, Hot Spot, Fast Play, and more. Another is that big jackpots are newsworthy, and the jackpots grow until they appear to be so huge that everyone knows that someone is going to win, thereby encouraging more people to play. The result is a system that appears to operate based on meritocratic principles, even though it rewards many of those who gamble a large portion of their incomes.