The Value of a Lottery
The casting of lots to make decisions and determine fates has a long history, dating back at least as far as the Old Testament. In the early modern period, lotteries were common in Europe as painless and equitable forms of taxation, providing the means to finance public projects such as the building of the British Museum, the repair of bridges, and a number of projects in the American colonies—including supplying a battery of guns to defend Philadelphia and rebuilding Faneuil Hall in Boston. Even though they were outlawed in 1826, private lotteries continued to be widely used, and were often promoted as a more “natural” form of taxation than the imposition of a direct tax.
In the United States, state lotteries have become a popular way for governments to raise money by selling chances to win a prize, usually a cash prize. The prizes range from small amounts of money to valuable goods, such as automobiles or jewelry. The elements of a lottery are payment, chance, and prize, and federal statutes prohibit the mailing or transportation of promotions for lotteries in interstate commerce.
A lottery is run as a business, and it seeks to maximize its revenues. This means that it must persuade people to spend money on it, and it does so by promoting the lottery as a fun experience and an attractive alternative to conventional forms of gambling. This message is especially effective in times of economic stress, when the lottery is promoted as a way to avoid higher taxes or cuts in public services.
Lottery advertising is also deceptive, frequently presenting misleading information about the odds of winning, inflating the value of the prizes (which are paid out over time, with inflation and taxes dramatically eroding their current value), and exaggerating the percentage of players who come from low-income neighborhoods. But the fact is that, despite the high percentage of losers, lottery players receive a substantial amount of value for their money, mainly because they have a tiny sliver of hope that they will eventually win.
This hope is worth a couple of minutes, hours, or days, and for many people who don’t see much prospects in the economy, that sliver of hope represents real value. This is why lottery playing remains a significant part of the American economy. Unless the lottery is reformed, it will continue to be an ugly underbelly of our financial system. It’s important for citizens to recognize that the lottery is a form of legalized swindling and to speak out against it. If enough people speak out, it may be possible to stop this swindle. But it will not be easy. It will require a broad coalition of groups, including the religious, civic, and environmental movements. It will also require strong political leadership. And, most of all, it will require a change in the culture of the American people.