The official lottery, in the United States, is an organized system of chance-based prize drawings conducted by state governments. It is a popular form of public revenue, used to support a variety of programs, including education, infrastructure, and social services. Lottery proceeds also fund religious and charitable causes, such as AIDS research or homelessness prevention. While individual states operate their own lotteries, many join consortiums to offer games spanning a larger geographical footprint and carrying bigger jackpots. The largest US lotteries are operated by the Mega Millions and Powerball, which are promoted nationally and serve as de facto national lotteries.
Lotteries first appeared in England and then spread to the colonies despite Protestant proscriptions against gambling. The American settlers were eager to fund their enterprises, and lotteries were an effective way of doing so. But their popularity and the crooked practices of some operators made them the target of widespread protest. In the late nineteenth century, a wave of anti-lottery activism brought lotteries to a halt in most of the nation. By the time it reached a climax, in 1860, all but three states had prohibited lotteries. Nevertheless, the infamously crooked Louisiana State Lottery Company remained in operation, selling tickets across state lines and even sending advertisements by mail. Eventually, the company would be dissolved by congressional action that modeled the laws against cigarette advertising.
Advocates of the new state lotteries in the nineteen-thirties and forties argued that they could fill government coffers without raising state taxes, and thus keep money in average citizens’ pockets. Those arguments were flawed, as Cohen explains. They wildly inflated the effect of lottery revenues on state budgets. In the first year that the New Hampshire Lottery existed, for example, the resulting funds covered only about two per cent of state spending.
When it became clear that the lottery was not a silver bullet, legalization advocates switched tactics. Instead of claiming that the proceeds would float most of a state’s budget, they began to assert that it would cover a specific line item—most often education but sometimes elder care or public parks or aid to veterans. This strategy was more effective, as it allowed advocates to frame the debate in terms that voters would find appealing.
The odds of winning are one in a hundred thousand, but there is no guarantee that anyone will win. The winner may be rich or poor, an individual or a syndicate, and the prize money can be split amongst multiple winners. That is fair, but it doesn’t necessarily protect the game from charges of unfairness. The same argument that was leveled against the Poll Tax, that it favored the rich, applies here. Whether it is fair or not, one person can take all the loot, if pimpish randomness decrees that. Until that changes, it remains an unfair and unjust practice.