What is a Lottery?

Lottery is a gambling-type activity in which people pay for the chance to win a prize, typically money or goods. God forbids coveting money, and a lottery is an expression of that sin. People buy tickets in the hope that their lives will improve if they win the jackpot, but, as Ecclesiastes warns, “there is no gain without pain.”

The earliest known lottery dates back to the fifteenth century in the Low Countries, where it was used to raise funds for town fortifications and charity. It spread to England, where it became a popular alternative to taxation for funding everything from military conscription to public works. The lottery was also a get-out-of-jail-free card (literally); participants had immunity from arrest for crimes except piracy, murder, and treason.

During America’s early national period, when states were short of revenue and long on needs for new public works and services, lotteries quickly grew in popularity. For politicians, Cohen writes, lotteries were “budgetary miracles, the chance for states to make revenue appear seemingly out of thin air.” They were a way to maintain existing services while avoiding any uproar at the polls over raising taxes.

But critics arose from all walks of life, including many devout Protestants, who saw government-sponsored gambling as morally unconscionable. These critics argued that gambling violated Scriptural commandments against coveting money and the things that money can buy, as well as biblical injunctions against gambling.

The wealthy do play the lottery, of course, but they do so much less frequently than poorer people. In fact, according to one study, people making more than fifty thousand dollars a year spend only a percent of their income on lottery tickets; those earning less than thirty-thousand per year purchase about thirteen percent of their money on them. This is a major reason why lottery opponents argue that it’s unfair to pit rich against poor, and why they oppose state-sponsored gambling, which isn’t the same thing as private, unregulated games like poker and blackjack.

As the number of states instituting lotteries grew in the late eighties and nineties, people began to realize that the odds of winning were abysmally long. But rather than cut prizes, as some suggested, lottery commissions began to make them even more prohibitively long by raising the prize caps. As the odds grew, ticket sales continued to rise. The result is that the modern lottery resembles nothing so much as a drug dealer’s marketing strategy, with state officials employing all the tricks of the trade to keep people hooked. To that end, they employ the same tactics as tobacco and video-game manufacturers. Specifically, they use ad campaigns, prize caps, and mathematics to lure players in and then manipulate them. In the end, they know that the more they make winners, the more people will want to play. They’ll even lie about the odds of winning, claiming that a winner’s chances of winning are one-in-three-million when in reality they are probably closer to one-in-five-million or more.