The Secrets of the Official Lottery

In the earliest days of the lottery, moralists were quick to dismiss the notion that government should be in the business of selling heroin or tickets for horse races. But America soon found itself, as Cohen writes, defined politically by its aversion to taxation, and the lottery was an appealing alternative. Lotteries were able to raise money for everything from civil defense to Harvard and Yale. John Hancock ran a lottery to build Boston’s Faneuil Hall, and George Washington tried to run one to help finance a road across Virginia’s mountain pass.

The problem, as with any form of gambling, is that the odds of winning are always far more stacked against you than the chances of losing. And as more people get involved, the more rigged the game becomes. Lottery games aren’t just crooked, they’re often shady, with the state and the players taking different sides.

Lotteries have been around in some form since antiquity, but the modern versions we know today were born in the mid-twentieth century. New Hampshire, famously tax-averse, approved the first state-run lotto in 1964, and more than a dozen others followed suit in quick succession.

During that time, they’ve raised a total of more than $502 billion. But the amount that goes to actual state coffers is a drop in the bucket, by some estimates as little as 1 or 2 percent of overall state revenue. And despite the fact that state governments are involved in running them, they’re not subject to the same sort of scrutiny that would be applied to other businesses that raise taxes.