A gambling game in which tickets are sold for a chance to win certain prizes, usually money or merchandise. Lotteries can be state-sponsored or privately run. Almost anyone can play them, and they can have many different types of prizes, from money to sports team draft picks to college scholarships. The word “lottery” comes from the Dutch noun lot, meaning fate or fortune.
The author’s main argument is that the lottery has long been a source of public corruption, because of its allure to people who hope to improve their lives without working very hard. It’s an argument that is difficult to refute, because it relies on a deep understanding of the way human beings are wired and how they interact with one another.
Cohen traces the history of lotteries, noting that they started to gain popularity in the immediate post-World War II period when states were expanding their social safety nets and trying to keep up with inflation, rising costs for the Vietnam War, and a growing population. It was at that time, he writes, that the idea of winning a prize, however modest, for very little effort or risk seemed a reasonable proposition.
By the 17th century, European lottery games were a popular way to raise funds for town fortifications and for charitable purposes, and they were hailed as a painless form of taxation. The English word lottery is derived from the Dutch noun lot, which itself combines Old English hlote and Middle Dutch loet. The lottery grew in popularity in the United States as well, though it had its pitfalls. In the early days, George Washington managed a lottery whose prizes included human beings, and a formerly enslaved man won a prize in a South Carolina lottery and went on to foment slave rebellion.
But the most enduring problem with lottery games is their inherent conflict of interest. The promoters of these games make a profit by selling tickets, and the government is required to take a cut of the proceeds for administrative expenses. As a result, the total value of the prizes is less than the amount that would have been paid out if there had been no profits for the promoters and no taxes.
Despite these drawbacks, lottery games are popular with the general public and remain profitable. Their allure is based on the human tendency to believe that they can control their own destiny by pursuing short-term gains, a belief that is reinforced by billboards proclaiming that “You could be a winner!” The ugly underbelly of lottery advertising is this: It is an attempt to lure people into a system that ultimately depends on chance for its success. The odds of winning are long, but people continue to play because they think they have a small sliver of a chance of beating the odds. They want to get rich quick, and the lottery seems like an easy way to do it. They’re wrong.