The official lottery is a form of government-regulated gambling, in which state governments set a fixed prize pool for the games they sell. Historically, the proceeds from lotteries have been used for public works, such as highways, canals, and railways. Lottery proceeds also have been earmarked for universities and churches. During the Revolutionary War, the Continental Congress used lotteries to raise money for military supplies. In addition, lottery money helped finance civil defense and build churches. Today, lottery proceeds are mostly spent on education and other public services.
The modern lottery began in the northeast, where states with large social safety nets needed to make up for shrinking budgets and rising inflation after World War II. Lotteries seemed like a way to balance the books without increasing taxes or cutting services, which would enrage their anti-tax electorates. In the nineteen-sixties, however, that arrangement collapsed under the weight of soaring inflation and the cost of the Vietnam War.
Lottery revenues, in contrast, were growing quickly. The lottery was a tempting option, and it was marketed as a way to get rid of taxes entirely. The underlying message was that gambling was inevitable, so the state might as well capture it in order to fund public services.
But this narrative overlooks two key facts. First, lotteries aren’t a reliable source of revenue. They don’t produce a surplus, and they generate a significant amount of debt. In the long run, they can be a significant burden on future generations. The second fact is that lotteries have a very inefficient collection system. Of every dollar that is collected, only about 40 percent ends up going to the state. That may seem like a big sum, but it is actually only about a tenth of what real state governments need to operate.
In his new book, “Playing Lottery with God,” Cohen explains why the modern lottery has become so pervasive and how it can be viewed as a moral problem. In the early days, lottery proceeds were used to fund everything from church construction to civic projects and even wars. Throughout this time, America was defined politically by an aversion to taxation, and that made the lottery attractive.
Since the nineteen-sixties, lottery profits have accounted for less than a fifth of state spending. Despite this, the lottery is still popular and growing. The reason is that a lot of people want to play, and they are willing to spend their hard-earned dollars on the chance to win. It is a system that is deeply flawed and morally dangerous, and it is one that we must reject.