The lottery, America’s most popular form of gambling, contributes billions to state coffers each year. It has also been criticized as an addictive and often dangerous form of gambling. There is no shortage of stories of winners who find their newfound wealth destroying their lives, with relationships, health and even sanity all suffering as a result.
Lottery, of course, is an ancient pastime, used throughout the Roman Empire (Nero was a big fan) and attested to in biblical accounts of everything from the selection of kings to the distribution of Jesus’ garments after his Crucifixion. In the 17th century it became commonplace in Europe, spreading to America with the European settlement and surviving Protestant proscriptions against gambling.
When states started legalizing lotteries in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Cohen writes, they were looking for budgetary solutions that would not enrage an increasingly anti-tax electorate. They were sold on the fantasy that the proceeds from a lottery, with its seemingly inexhaustible supply of millions, could fill state coffers without necessitating any tax hikes.
The people who run lotteries aren’t above leveraging psychology, and they employ everything from the design of tickets to their advertising campaigns to keep consumers coming back for more. It’s not a whole lot different than the strategies of tobacco companies or video-game makers, except that it’s a government-sanctioned industry. And, like those other industries, the lottery has become a massively profitable business with some serious ethical problems.