As many people know, the lottery is a game wherein players purchase tickets for a small chance of winning some amount of money. The winner is chosen by drawing lots or using a random number generator. Lotteries have a long history, dating back to keno slips in the Chinese Han dynasty of about 205 BC. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, they played a crucial role in funding colonial America’s roads, libraries, churches, colleges, canals, and other public works.
By the nineteen-sixties, however, America’s prosperity was beginning to wane. With rising population, inflation, and the costs of war weighing heavily on state budgets, politicians struggled to maintain public services without raising taxes or cutting social programs—two options that were wildly unpopular with voters. Then, in what Cohen describes as a “budgetary miracle,” the lottery came to the rescue.
The states began to adopt their own national lotteries, establishing a state agency or public corporation to run them (as opposed to licensing private firms for a cut of profits). They started with a modest number of relatively simple games and, under pressure to increase revenues, progressively added more and more, focusing on markets where poverty and unemployment were high. As a result, lottery sales were disproportionately high in communities of color and the poor.
During this expansion, lottery officials were careful to craft two main messages that would motivate people to play. The first was the idea that winning a jackpot was like striking it rich, a message designed to capture Americans’ romantic attachment to wealth and the notion of “luck.” The second was the implication that playing the lottery was fun and socially acceptable. This latter message was coded to appeal to people’s irrational and often non-economical desire to experience enjoyment, something they could only get from playing the lottery.
In addition to the monetary prizes, lottery proceeds also support a variety of charitable and social projects. For example, in the United States, the state lottery provides education scholarships, housing vouchers, and kindergarten placements at reputable public schools. The lottery also funds a vast array of other societal initiatives, including health care and infrastructure projects.
In his essay, Cohen argues that the popularity of lotteries can be explained by the way people make decisions. For most people, the entertainment value of a lottery ticket is enough to outweigh the disutility of losing some money. This is why the vast majority of lottery participants are not delusional; they understand that their odds of winning are astronomically slim. What they do not understand is that their odds of losing are equally astronomically slim. The result is that, for most of us, the decision to play a lottery is irrational. This explains why it is so hard to stop. Nevertheless, some do stop. Those who are willing to do so must have made a clear-eyed decision that they are risking their lives for a tiny bit of fun. Those who continue to play must have made the same calculation, or have found some other reason to keep on playing.