The Lottery and Public Goods


Lottery is a form of gambling, in which participants buy tickets and hope to win big prizes. While it has often been criticized as addictive and unethical, it can also be used to raise money for public goods. The first recorded lottery was organized in the fifteenth century in the Low Countries, where towns used it to build town fortifications and help the poor. It was later adopted in England, where the first state lottery was chartered by Queen Elizabeth I to fund wars and other military needs.

By the early nineteen-seventies, as Cohen explains, the lottery’s obsession with unimaginable riches reflected a real change in American life: income inequality grew; pensions and jobs were not guaranteed; health-care costs soared; and the old American promise that hard work and education would pay off for everyone was starting to look a bit out of reach for many families.

No longer able to sell the idea that a lottery would float all of state government, legalization advocates shifted their argument, arguing that it could cover one particular line item in a state’s budget—usually some popular, nonpartisan service like education, elder care, or aid for veterans. This strategy gave moral cover to white voters, who were reassured that by voting for a lottery they would not be supporting gambling but instead providing much-needed support for services they felt should exist anyway. It was an odd and incongruous coalition, but one that seemed to have some traction.

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