Is It Time to Legalize the Lottery?

A financial lottery is a game in which participants pay $1 for tickets, select numbers, and then win prizes if enough of their selections match those that are randomly drawn by machines. It’s a familiar form, and one that has been around for centuries. For instance, the Bible mentions casting lots to decide matters of fate, while records of lotteries that distribute prize money are as old as the fourteenth century, when people in the Low Countries held them for town fortifications and charity.

The modern state-run lottery is of a more recent vintage, though. Cohen argues that its emergence coincided with a crisis in state funding. As the costs of government exploded in the late twentieth century, state governments faced a choice: either raise taxes or cut services, neither of which appealed to voters. In the face of this dilemma, states turned to lotteries as a source of tax revenue.

For the past century and a half, Cohen contends, state legislatures have sold their lotteries by emphasizing the money that can be made, not the harm it might do. It’s a strategy that has been successful, because lotteries have proved to be remarkably lucrative. In fact, some people have even become full-time lottery players, acquiring tickets in bulk and traveling to various states to play them. The Huffington Post reports that a Michigan couple has made nearly $27 million over nine years through this approach, earning their living by buying thousands of tickets at a time.

But there is a dark side to the story, which Cohen details. State lotteries have also been exploited by rogue operators who prey on the vulnerable. They hawk tickets in places like convenience stores, where people are likely to be shopping for other necessities. These lotteries have been used to sell everything from apartments to kindergarten placements, and they have been tangled up in the slave trade, as when George Washington managed a Virginia lottery that gave away human beings.

In the end, Cohen argues that legalization of the state-run lottery is a moral imperative. If people are going to gamble anyway, he says, why not let the state benefit from their action? This argument has been successful, and it’s a big reason why more than three-quarters of the states have now introduced them.

In the past few decades, however, advocates have shifted their pitch. Instead of arguing that the lottery will float an entire state budget, they now focus on one line item, usually a popular service that benefits the majority of citizens, such as education or elder care. These new arguments make legalization seem less like a handout and more like a way to help those in need. This approach has helped to persuade a number of states to adopt the lottery.