The lottery, at its most basic level, involves paying a small amount of money for the chance to win a much larger sum. It’s not a particularly new idea. The casting of lots for decisions and fates has a long history—there are even a few instances in the Bible. But the exploitation of the public for material gain is relatively recent, beginning in the seventeenth century. The modern state-run lottery, with its promise of instant riches, was invented in the United States in 1964. The author of this article, Gabriel Cohen, argues that the lottery’s success has been driven by voter demand and political cynicism. In the early twenty-first century, a “tax revolt” intensified, as voters reacted against ever-increasing property taxes, health-care costs, and stagnant wages. State governments, eager for additional revenue, seized on the popularity of lotteries as an alternative source of “painless” taxes.
In his book, Cohen traces the development of the lottery and its impact on American culture, politics, and society. He explains that, as the lottery has become increasingly popular, debates about it have changed from the desirability of the enterprise to concerns over its impact on people’s lives. These concerns have ranged from the problems of compulsive gamblers to its regressive effect on lower-income people. The growth of the lottery has also prompted it to develop a variety of innovations, from scratch-off tickets to the addition of games like keno and video poker.
At the same time, defenders of the lottery argue that it has many desirable social and economic impacts. Cohen contends that it increases civic engagement and provides a form of entertainment accessible to all income levels. He also contends that it is a better source of tax revenue than property or sales taxes, and that it bolsters state education budgets.
As state revenues rise, the lottery becomes more popular, and the odds of winning increase. The odds of winning the biggest prize—the Mega Millions or Powerball jackpot—now stand at one in three million. This trend has accelerated in recent years, with the introduction of more games and larger prize amounts. The result has been a “lottery boom” that combines the explosive growth of computer technology with the familiar psychological and behavioral traits of gambling addiction.
Despite these arguments, critics of the lottery persist in attacking it on various fronts, from the question of whether it is truly random to its use of color to determine winners. However, these criticisms do not address the most important issue: the fact that lottery profits are in large part based on addictive behavior. As a result, it is difficult to design an unbiased lottery. For example, a lottery whose outcome depends entirely on random chance will most likely have colors that appear to come up more often than others, but the number of times each color has appeared is likely to be fairly close to the overall total. This is because of the principle of the law of large numbers, which states that the more events that occur in a sample, the closer the distribution will be to the total probability of those events occurring.