Lottery is a popular game in which people buy tickets for small amounts of money and then have numbers randomly drawn. The prizes range from money to goods or services to even a free home. Many governments organize lotteries and regulate them. Some have even used them as a source of funding for public goods. While there are some ethical issues with lottery, it is a popular activity that has raised significant amounts of revenue.
Cohen’s book examines the history of the lottery from its beginnings to the modern incarnation that states have adopted, which he argues has become a major source of state government revenue in the twenty-first century. The adoption of the lottery, he writes, was motivated by two major factors. First, it was a result of a fiscal crisis in state government. With population growth and inflation, it was becoming increasingly difficult for states to balance their budgets without raising taxes or cutting public programs. This was especially true in America, where state governments had built up generous social safety nets.
The second factor was that lotteries were very effective at getting voters to approve gambling. The argument went that, since gamblers were going to gamble anyway (even heroin is a form of gambling), it was better for the state to collect the profits and use them for the public good. This view dismissed longstanding ethical objections to gambling and won broad support among white voters in particular.
But, as Cohen argues, this argument is flawed. First, it fails to consider the fact that most people who play the lottery do not do so for monetary gain. In most cases, winning a prize is only one of several factors that influences an individual’s decision to buy a ticket. The combined utility of non-monetary benefits (such as entertainment value) may often exceed the disutility of losing a small amount of money, making the purchase a rational choice for an individual.
In addition, the idea that winning the lottery is a good way to help the poor or the needy ignores the fact that lottery revenues are largely derived from middle-class and upper-middle class families. The lottery is a business, and, like any other business it must promote itself in order to make a profit. This necessarily involves the promotion of gambling, which can have negative consequences for certain groups of people—for example, it can encourage problem gambling. Moreover, it raises serious questions about whether the state should be in the business of encouraging people to spend their money on gambling. While Cohen’s book is not the first to explore these concerns, it makes a strong contribution to this important discussion.