The History of the Lottery


The lottery is a popular pastime that generates billions in revenue each year. It’s a game where people can win life-changing sums with very low odds of success. Some people play just for fun while others believe that winning the lottery is their answer to a better life.

Lotteries have a long history, going back to Moses and the Old Testament, Roman emperors giving away land and slaves, and British colonists bringing them to America in the mid-nineteenth century. But Cohen argues that the modern fascination with winning jackpots has more to do with our national psychology than any historical or philosophical roots. It began in the nineteen-sixties, he writes, when “growing awareness of all the money that could be made in the gambling business collided with a crisis in state funding.” Faced with growing costs and aging populations, state legislatures found it hard to balance their budgets without raising taxes or cutting services, both of which would meet with fierce resistance from voters.

Lottery was the perfect solution: It allowed governments to maintain current spending levels while bringing in new cash through a mechanism that would appear to magically produce revenue from thin air. The only problem was that lottery revenues weren’t as transparent as a sales or income tax, and consumers didn’t always realize they were paying an implicit tax when they bought their tickets. So people kept buying, and states kept selling, and the jackpots got ever larger.