Does the Lottery Have a Purpose?


The lottery is a gambling game in which numbers are drawn for a prize. It’s an idea with a long history, including biblical instructions for distributing property by lot and Roman emperors giving away slaves to the crowd at Saturnalian feasts. But it didn’t become a widespread practice until the nineteen-sixties, when rising public awareness of all the money to be made in the gambling business collided with a crisis in state funding. With America growing rapidly and many states providing a generous social safety net, balancing the budget became difficult without either raising taxes or cutting services—and both options were deeply unpopular with voters.

Lotteries seemed like a perfect solution: they could raise funds without annoying voters with a new tax or sharply reducing government services. In 1964, New Hampshire approved the first modern lottery and thirteen other states quickly followed suit. For many of these governments, lottery revenues have since become a major source of revenue, but Cohen points out that the way they are raised is far from transparent or even in the best interest of the state’s citizens.

But the real secret to the lottery’s success is its appeal to people who are essentially irresponsible with their money. These people know the odds are long, but they still buy tickets. They do things like play only certain types of numbers, select their favorite number over and over again, and use quote-unquote “systems” that are completely unsupported by statistical reasoning (like buying their tickets at a lucky store or playing the same number on every ticket).

Most importantly, they believe that winning the lottery is the only way for them to get out of their current financial situation. As a result, they’re willing to spend far more than they could afford on a ticket—and they often don’t stop buying them when they’re out of cash.

Cohen’s book takes an interesting look at the psychology of lottery players and what makes them tick. He also explains how the lottery’s rules and structure work to make it a profitable enterprise. The bottom line is that the lottery does have a purpose, but it’s not one that most people will agree on.

For a few centuries, the lottery was used to finance everything from building town fortifications to giving away land to the poor. It formed a rare point of agreement between Thomas Jefferson, who viewed it as no more risky than farming, and Alexander Hamilton, who grasped what would turn out to be its essence: that most people prefer a small chance at a large sum of money to a larger chance at a smaller one.