In America, lottery is a massive industry. People spend billions on tickets each year. They get sucked in by the promise of instant riches. The prizes on offer range from a few hundred dollars to millions of dollars. And even the winnings of a few thousand dollars can change someone’s life. But what does it mean when the odds of winning are so long? What is it about the lottery that makes people keep playing? To answer these questions, we should start with a little history.
The first recorded lotteries to award money as prizes were held in the Low Countries in the fifteenth century. These were primarily town lotteries, used to raise funds for town fortifications and charity for the poor. The practice soon spread to England and from there to the new American colonies, despite strong Protestant proscriptions against gambling. In fact, the lottery helped finance many of the early American colonial settlements.
By the nineteenth century, state-run lotteries had become common in the United States, with the proceeds often going toward public works projects. They also became a major tool for social engineering. Lotteries could serve as a mechanism for channeling people’s deep, often inarticulate dissatisfaction with their social order into anger directed at the victims of that order. In the case of slaves, this was often a form of “black rage.”
Lotteries were also a popular party activity. The casting of lots was an ancient practice, and Nero himself was a fan of lotteries. They were also a frequent feature of Saturnalia feasts and dinner parties in the American colonies, where guests would receive tickets with symbols on them and then have a drawing for various prizes.
As the lottery grew in popularity, it drew support from politicians of all political stripes. Those who approved it saw it as a way to maintain state services without raising taxes, which would provoke outrage from the populace. As Cohen writes, “Lotteries provided a chance for legislators to perform budgetary miracles—to make revenue appear out of thin air.”
The modern lottery, though, is different. Its advertising campaign has moved away from the idea that there is something mystical about the numbers and prizes. Instead it promotes two messages largely obscured by the fact that the experience of buying a ticket is fun. One is the message that “playing the lottery is a game and you should take it lightly.” This is coded to suggest that people who play the lottery are not serious about gambling, and they don’t spend very much on tickets.
The other message is a more subtle one, that the lottery is a form of social control that keeps people from going off the deep end. It’s an argument that has a lot of resonance in today’s world, where gambling is seen as a way for poor people to escape poverty. It is an argument that should be heeded. People will continue to gamble, and we need to find a way to regulate it.