Lottery History

Dec 17, 2023 Gambling


Lotteries are a common feature of American life. They draw on a centuries-old tradition of casting lots to decide fates and determine rewards. Lotteries are also a favored means of financing state governments, and have been used in all the American colonies, despite Protestant prohibitions on gambling.

Lottery history offers lessons in the futility of get-rich-quick schemes, and the value of hard work to attain wealth. God wants us to earn our money honestly: “The one unwilling to work shall not eat” (Proverbs 23:5), and to gain wealth through diligence, as a gift from Him: “But the diligent hand bears much fruit” (Proverbs 12:24). The Bible also condemns gambling, noting that it is a sin that brings ruin and misery (Psalms 29:3).

Early lotteries were little more than party games, often held during Roman Saturnalia festivities and giving guests tickets to be exchanged for fancy items like dinnerware. They were even sometimes deployed for serious purposes, as Augustus Caesar’s lottery to raise funds for city repairs provides an early example.

Modern state lotteries are a bit different, as they are often established as a reaction to a perceived crisis in state finances. In the late-twentieth century, states were struggling to pay for a large and growing population, rising inflation, the cost of the Vietnam War, and a declining federal share of revenue. The lottery offered a solution to the problem, as voters could voluntarily spend their money for the chance to win a public good prize.

Advocates of legalization marketed lotteries as a silver bullet to fill state coffers, arguing that the proceeds would cover a line item in a state budget, invariably a popular government service like education, but sometimes elder care or public parks or aid for veterans. This approach was effective, and state lotteries have consistently won broad public approval.

The success of lotteries has made them a staple of many state budgets, and the practice is so widespread that it is difficult to find a state without one. But a closer look at the history of state lotteries suggests that they have become a classic case of a policy that is adopted piecemeal and then shaped by the continuing evolution of the industry. Most state officials are unable to change the original policy they inherited, and are therefore trapped by it.

The modern lottery industry has come under attack in recent years, with critics claiming that state-sponsored lotteries promote compulsive gambling and have a regressive impact on lower-income groups. But these criticisms, as Cohen demonstrates, reflect a failure to understand how the industry works and an unwillingness to recognize that public policies are not fixed, but are subject to continual change. The ongoing evolution of the lottery industry has transformed its initial purpose, and as it continues to grow it will be reshaped even further. Rather than fighting this tide, we need to acknowledge that state government has no single “gambling policy,” and must develop a series of overlapping and competing policies.

By admin