The History of the Lottery

The lottery is a system for awarding prizes, often cash, by random selection. It is a common and popular way to fund public services, from construction of town fortifications to charity for the poor. The term derives from the Dutch noun lot, meaning fate, and by the seventeenth century was used in the Low Countries to collect money for a range of public usages, as well as to pay for things like legal redress for people accused of piracy or murder. It was also a painless alternative to paying taxes.

The most familiar modern lottery is financial, where participants buy tickets for a fixed amount of money and hope to win a prize that varies according to the number of ticket purchases. This type of lottery is sometimes criticized as an addictive form of gambling, but it does have its uses: It can be a convenient way to raise money for the poor or for subsidized housing units.

In the United States, where the lottery was introduced in the nineteenth century, it became a popular source of revenue for public services. Cohen describes how this came to clash with America’s late-twentieth-century tax revolt, as a growing awareness of the enormous wealth to be had in the lottery world coincided with a collapse in state revenue that left families facing rising taxes and cuts to health-care benefits.

Although some critics see a connection between the rise of the lottery and the rise of American capitalism, Cohen believes that it is more complicated than that. He argues that the success of the lottery was partially due to the fact that it enabled voters, both white and black, to disavow long-held ethical objections to gambling by claiming that, since they were going to gamble anyway, the government might as well collect the proceeds.