The Truth About the Official Lottery

The first state lotteries emerged in the fourteen-hundreds, when towns in the Low Countries began drawing tickets to raise money for town fortifications and charity for the poor. In the sixteenth century, the practice spread to England, where Queen Elizabeth chartered the nation’s first state lottery, requiring profits to go toward “reparation of the Havens and strength of the Realme.” Each ticket cost ten shillings, which was a sizable sum at the time.

Amid a nationwide tax revolt, states cast around for revenue solutions that wouldn’t enrage anti-tax voters. Lotteries seemed perfect, because they allowed states to raise money without raising taxes. And they could be marketed in a way that made it seem as though people were voluntarily paying for the chance to win large sums of money.

Advocates argued that, since people were going to gamble anyway, governments should get in on the action and pocket the proceeds. The argument was a compelling one. But, as Cohen explains, it was also wrong.

In actuality, state lottery revenues have been a drop in the bucket for states, amounting to only about two per cent of total state spending between 1964 and 2019. Super-sized jackpots may drive ticket sales and earn the games a windfall of free publicity on news sites and broadcasts, but they’re not enough to fund the vast operations required to run a modern government. And, by stoking interest in the games, lottery commissions are actually creating more serious gamblers than they would have otherwise been.