The Myths of the Lottery

The lottery has long been a popular way to raise funds for everything from churches to canals to public works. It was even used as a method of collecting taxes, with the Continental Congress using a lottery to help pay for the Revolutionary War. In fact, Cohen writes, the modern lottery is “a kind of government-sanctioned addiction.” Lottery advertising campaigns, scratch-off tickets, and the math behind them are all designed to keep people coming back for more. And unlike the tobacco and video-game industries, state lottery commissions aren’t above relying on some of the same psychological tricks to manipulate players.

The story starts with the villagers gathering for the lottery, “The children assembled first, of course.” In this small rural American village, tradition and custom rule the day. One misstep in any of the rituals and you’ll be ostracized from the community, or worse—you could be killed. As this elaborate lottery ritual begins, each family prepares to draw a slip of paper from a box. The story’s use of the word “of course” hints that this is something everyone does every year, without exception.

While the lottery was once a popular means to finance projects, it became increasingly popular as states sought to balance their budgets and provide a social safety net without raising taxes or incurring an outpouring of opposition at the polls. As state revenue waned in the nineteen-sixties, lawmakers began looking for “budgetary miracles.” They found them in the lottery.

As the lottery’s popularity grew, so did the mythology surrounding it. In addition to its alleged ability to improve health and education, it was promoted as a civic duty and a “tax-free alternative” to other forms of gambling. But as Cohen shows, these claims were often misleading and at times outright false.

In reality, the lottery is a regressive form of gambling, with those who make less money spending more on tickets than those who make more. Moreover, the money that is generated by the lottery is a small fraction of what state budgets actually need to operate, and it may not be enough to keep up with population growth, inflation, and other costs.

Despite this, politicians continue to promote the lottery as a benign form of taxation. They claim that it’s important to maintain vital services, such as education and health care, and that the lottery helps them do so without imposing a sales or income tax, which would be unpopular with voters. In his book, Cohen argues that this is an outright lie. The true message of the lottery is that you can’t rely on your taxes to pay for what you need, and that the only real choice is to gamble. And if you don’t win, well, it just wasn’t your day.