The Growing Popularity of the Lottery


The lottery is a form of gambling in which numbers are drawn at random for a prize. Some governments outlaw it, while others endorse it and organize state or national lotteries. Some states also have private lotteries. Some lottery proceeds are used for public education, while other funds go to law enforcement or for general government purposes. Lottery games have been around for centuries. In fact, the first known records of them date back to a Chinese keno slip from 205–187 BC. The modern incarnation of the lottery began in 1964, when New Hampshire approved the first state-run lottery of the modern era. Since then, dozens of states have followed suit. The lottery continues to grow in popularity, generating billions of dollars per year for state coffers.

The term “lottery” can be applied to a variety of situations, from deciding who gets subsidized housing units to which kindergarten your child will be assigned. These are examples of what’s called the “financial lottery,” where prizes are awarded based on chance rather than merit or effort. The word can also be used to describe the process by which judges are selected or how prosecutors are assigned cases.

In the fourteenth century, European towns instituted a system of lotteries to raise money for town fortifications and other projects. The practice eventually spread to England, where Queen Elizabeth I chartered the first national lottery in 1567. She stipulated that its profits be used for “the reparation of the Havens and Strength of the Realme.”

Cohen explains how lottery popularity rose in the late twentieth century as state governments struggled to find solutions to budget crises that would not inflame anti-tax voters. In many cases, these initiatives were aimed at reducing property taxes or increasing funding for social programs. In those cases, the lottery was often portrayed as a way to bolster these public interests without raising taxes, because lottery proceeds are collected from players who do not feel like they are being taxed for other reasons.

Another reason for lottery popularity is the perception that it is an effective means of distributing wealth, even in a society where income disparities are extreme. This is especially true in poor, minority communities, where lottery advertising is particularly shrewd. The lottery may also help people develop a sense of responsibility for their community and society.

One of the most interesting aspects of the lottery, however, is its effect on political culture. Cohen argues that, in states where the lottery is popular, the state becomes a sort of “laboratory for experimentation in democratic political behavior.” He contends that when people play the lottery, they are engaging in a form of “parallel democracy,” a kind of parallel voting on public issues. This parallel democracy erodes the integrity of electoral politics and increases the likelihood of democratic chaos. In addition, it has resulted in a skewed distribution of resources.