Americans spend upward of $80 billion on lottery tickets each year. A few winners emerge, but most lose. It’s a big business, and states encourage the game by promoting it in ways that make its prizes seem more obtainable than they actually are. This makes the lottery an inextricable part of modern life, a form of gambling that’s a lot like playing video games or buying a Snickers bar—it’s not necessarily wrong to do it, but you should do it responsibly.
The idea behind a lottery is to determine winners by random chance, and it can have many uses. The most common are financial, in which a winner receives a prize based on the money they have put into the lottery. But there are also sports and other kinds of lotteries, such as a random draw for draft picks in the NBA. These are aimed at attracting people who might otherwise not want to pay for a ticket but may be drawn in by the promise of instant wealth.
Lotteries date back centuries, and the practice of determining distributions by chance is widely accepted. The Old Testament instructed Moses to divide land by lot, and Roman emperors gave away property and slaves by the same method. In colonial America, lotteries were used for both private and public purposes. Towns raised funds for road construction and canals through lotteries, and the colleges of Princeton and Columbia were financed by them.
Today, the most common lottery is the state-sponsored version, in which participants buy tickets for a chance to win a sum of money. These are often promoted as a way for the state to raise revenue, and they are generally supported by a broad coalition of groups that benefit from taxation—including businesses, churches, education, and social services. In the early twenty-first century, however, the popularity of state-sponsored lotteries started to wane. With a growing population and rising inflation, state revenues began to dwindle, and balancing the budget would require either raising taxes or cutting services—both unpopular options with voters.
In response, some of the nation’s most affluent and largely white states started to promote their lotteries. Dismissing long-standing ethical objections, these new advocates argued that if people were going to gamble anyway, the government might as well take advantage of them and pocket the proceeds.
The idea was a disaster. The resulting lottery boom in the Northeast and Rust Belt caused some states to run out of money and, with it, their generous social safety nets. Other states, seeking ways to balance their budgets without enraging anti-tax voters, turned to the lottery. Its supporters argued that lottery revenue was so much better than raising taxes, they might never need to levy them again. This logic, flawed as it was, offered a moral cover to those who approved of the new tax.