The Lottery and Politics

Lottery is a form of gambling where numbers are drawn at random for a prize. Some governments outlaw it, others endorse it and organize a state or national lottery. Governments aren’t normally above availing themselves of the psychology of addiction, and lotteries do so in ways that are often reminiscent of tobacco companies or video-game makers.

Cohen’s book begins with the early history of the lottery, in which it was a rare point of agreement between Thomas Jefferson (who thought the game “not much riskier than farming”) and Alexander Hamilton (“It is the nature of human beings to prefer a small chance of winning a great deal to a large chance of winning nothing”). But it is in the modern era of state-run lotteries that Cohen focuses most of his attention, and in which the popularity of the games has been most explosive.

In the nineteen-sixties, as state budgets began to strain under rising inflation and the costs of Vietnam War commitments, legislators looked for revenue sources that would not enrage anti-tax voters. As the fad for lotteries took hold, it became apparent that the states’ new source of revenue could become an almost painless substitute for tax increases or service cuts.

State lottery commissions quickly develop extensive specific constituencies, including convenience store operators (the main vendors for lotteries); suppliers of equipment and services (heavy contributions to state political campaigns are routinely reported); teachers (in those states where a portion of the proceeds is earmarked for them) and even state legislators themselves (who, in turn, can rely on these revenues to pay for things they might not otherwise be able to afford).

But the reliance on this new source of revenue created its own problems. The problem is that, as any economist will tell you, if you spend more than you bring in, you will eventually go broke. Moreover, lottery play is inherently addictive. It can be difficult to quit, as people believe that the next drawing will be their big break.

To keep ticket sales high, many state lotteries use a variety of psychological tricks to manipulate players. They advertise huge prizes, encourage repeated plays by releasing new numbers every week, and offer rewards like free tickets for past winners. They also skew the demographics of players, giving advantage to men and those with higher incomes.

In addition, lottery players tend to be impulsive and prone to impulse control disorders. These traits are exacerbated by the fact that many lottery players choose their numbers based on significant dates or personal information, such as birthdays and ages. This reduces the overall chances of winning, but can still lead to a large jackpot for a single winner. Lottery officials recognize these problems and take steps to counter them. They have raised the odds, increased the prizes, and offered new types of games with increasingly complicated rules. But even these changes do not seem to have done the trick. In 2004, nineteen of the forty-nine states that had lotteries had declining sales compared to the previous year.