The Official Lottery and Its Critics

Official lottery is a form of gambling in which something, usually money or prizes, is distributed among participants by chance. Lotteries are regulated by law in many jurisdictions and are typically conducted with tickets that contain combinations of numbers or symbols. The first recorded public lotteries took place in the Low Countries in the 15th century, raising funds to build town fortifications and to help the poor. During the Revolutionary War, colonial America adopted them as a way to fund everything from roads and canals to universities and churches. The aversion to taxes in early America helped make the lottery an attractive alternative.

Even so, critics of government-sanctioned gambling hounded lotteries from both parties and all walks of life, though the most vociferous were devout Protestants, who saw it as morally unconscionable to fund a state’s services through a game that depended on luck. The fact that lotteries raised a tiny fraction of total state revenue didn’t help. In fact, Cohen argues, lotteries often ended up being “budgetary miracles,” the “fantastical hope for states to reap hundreds of millions of dollars without ever having to contemplate the unpleasant subject of taxation.”

Today, state-controlled lotteries raise billions of dollars per year, mostly by selling tickets that provide a small percentage of the jackpot. But a growing chorus of critics believes that they’re not doing enough to protect vulnerable groups, and may be harming the economies of their own communities by depriving them of a reliable source of revenue.