Raising Money Through the Lottery
The lottery is a popular means of raising funds for public purposes. It is cheap to organize and easy to play, so it appeals to a wide range of people. Traditionally, the prize has been cash, but it can also be goods or services. In the seventeenth century, the Dutch state-owned Staatsloterij held lotteries to raise money for everything from poor relief to public works projects. Lotteries were hailed as a painless form of taxation, and they were even used to finance the American Revolution.
In the nineteen-sixties, states faced a series of budget crises that could not be resolved by raising taxes or cutting services. In desperation, many states turned to the lottery. New Hampshire launched the modern era of state lotteries in 1964, and thirteen states followed suit within a few years. Lotteries were seen as an alternative to more unpleasant options, and they quickly proved popular among the nation’s notoriously tax averse voters.
Whether or not the prize is money, lottery winners tend to have high levels of enjoyment. This is in large part because of the psychological appeal of the game: players know they are unlikely to win, but they feel compelled to buy tickets nonetheless, and they enjoy imagining themselves as the lucky winner of a big jackpot. In addition, the gratifying experience of scratching a ticket has strong non-monetary value and reinforces positive emotions, adding to the utility of the purchase.
While the lottery is a fun diversion, it can also be harmful to individual well-being. It can lead to compulsive gambling, and it can increase the risk of other kinds of risky behavior. It can also make people gullible and short-sighted, and it can contribute to feelings of insecurity and helplessness. In the long run, however, it may also be expensive to society as a whole.
Cohen’s argument is that the lottery’s success in the twenty-first century began when it became clear that there was a lot of money to be made by making gambling palatable to the general public. This coincided with a crisis in state finances that could not be solved without increasing taxes or cutting services, which were both highly unpopular with voters.
The modern lottery is a lucrative enterprise with broad appeal that appeals to multiple constituencies, from convenience store operators (whose revenue comes from selling tickets) to teachers (in states where lottery revenues are earmarked for education) and politicians (who get accustomed to receiving lotto money in campaign contributions). In addition, the lottery has become adept at using advertising strategies to keep players hooked, not unlike tobacco or video games. This is no accident, as lottery commissioners are aware of the psychology of addiction and employ a variety of tricks to make gambling appealing to people who don’t necessarily need to win. As Cohen points out, the truth is that the lottery is not really a harmless pastime: It’s a big-money gamble with a lot of losers.