The Lottery is a Public Good

The drawing of lots to determine ownership or other rights has a long record in history (Nero liked them; there are several instances in the Bible) and is still used in some places, as with lottery prizes for a city’s repair work. But the modern lotteries that are widely popular in many countries are different from those of antiquity. They combine gambling with a public service, offering people the chance to win money for specific causes. They are usually based on an “annuity” structure that gives winners a lump sum, followed by payments over time arranged according to state rules.

Unlike other forms of gambling, such as casino games or horse racing, the lotteries are not dependent on luck or skill; they depend instead on people’s propensity to play them. This explains why lottery profits have generally been stable, even in times of economic stress. As Clotfelter and Cook point out, it is also likely why lotteries are able to retain broad public approval. Even when state governments are in financial trouble, they can argue that the proceeds of a lottery are being used to fund some specific public good, such as education.

In addition to the public services that they provide, modern lotteries make a powerful appeal by selling the dream of improbable wealth. The fantasy of a multimillion-dollar jackpot has become an integral part of the American psyche. Its rise, Cohen argues, coincided with a decline in the economic security of most working Americans that began in the nineteen-seventies and accelerated in the nineteen-eighties. In that era, the gap between rich and poor grew wider, pensions and job security eroded, health-care costs increased, and the long-held national promise that a person’s hard work and a decent education would guarantee them a better standard of living than their parents enjoyed ceased to be true.

As a result, in the nineteen-seventies and eighties, the lottery became America’s most popular form of gambling. In the first decade of this century, it remained so.

The reason is not just that people want to get rich, although that’s a significant factor. The true reason is that lotteries are a kind of addiction. Everything about them, from the way they are advertised and presented to the math that underlies their calculations, is designed to keep people coming back for more. This makes them much like cigarettes or video-games, only on a massive scale and under the auspices of the government. For that reason, the lottery may well be the most pernicious form of addiction in our society today.

By adminssk
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