American Lottery: The History of a National Obsession

A lottery toto macau is a gambling game in which players pay a small sum of money for the chance to win a large prize. The prizes can be cash, goods, or services. Some percentage of the proceeds is deducted for costs and profits, and the remaining sum goes to the winners. Lotteries are regulated by law in many countries.

In a book called “American Lottery: The History of a National Obsession,” David Cohen traces the modern incarnation of this American pastime, which he says has become an obsession accompanied by a denial of the fundamental truth of economics. It all started in the nineteen-sixties, he writes, when America’s postwar prosperity ran out and state budgets were stretched to the limit by inflation, population growth, and the cost of the Vietnam War. For many states that provided a generous social safety net, balancing the budget became impossible without raising taxes or cutting services, which was deeply unpopular with voters.

Enter the lottery, which seemed to provide a way for states to generate revenue from nowhere. Lottery advocates claimed that it could float most of a state’s budget, which allowed politicians to avoid the odious prospect of tax hikes and keep all their services intact. Lottery sales boomed as incomes fell, unemployment rose, and poverty rates increased, and tickets were heavily promoted in neighborhoods that were disproportionately Black or Latino. When a lottery’s defenders were no longer able to sell it as a budget miracle, they settled for arguing that it would cover only one line item—almost always education but sometimes veterans, public parks, or aid for the elderly—and that a vote against the lottery was a vote against education.

Lotteries are not just a source of state funding, however. They also send a message to the people who play them, and that message is not a positive one. People who play the lottery largely believe that their chances of winning are much lower than those of the general population, but they still purchase tickets because they value the entertainment and other non-monetary benefits they receive from playing.

The casting of lots for purposes other than money has a long history, as is testified by the many references to it in the Bible. In the early America that Cohen focuses on, it was a point of political consensus: Early American leaders were either short on revenue or incensed by a perceived morality in taxation, and both Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton supported lotteries to finance everything from civil defense to church construction. Lotteries were also the go-to solution for state-funded public works. Harvard, Yale, and Princeton were financed by them; the Continental Congress used them to fund the Revolutionary War; Benjamin Franklin even sponsored a lottery to raise funds for cannons. Lotteries spread across the nation, even as many Protestant colonies maintained strict prohibitions against dice and cards. They remain a part of life today, and, as Cohen points out, they are remarkably successful at delivering their central message.