The Official Lottery

The official lottery is a system of state-controlled gambling that involves purchasing a ticket to win a prize through chance. It has become popular in many states, including California, and is subject to laws that govern the way participants can participate. For example, it’s illegal to run your own lottery unless you are authorized by the state. In addition, all lottery winnings must be reported to the proper authorities. Lottery laws also prohibit activities that could be considered illegal, such as selling tickets to minors or using a false name.

In the seventeenth century, lottery games were common in Europe, where ten-shilling tickets served as get-out-of-jail-free cards for criminals and a form of charity for the poor. But critics of government-sanctioned gambling, ranging from the devout Protestants to liberal economists, had serious concerns about how much money states stood to gain.

As the twentieth century wore on, however, rising unemployment and the costs of the Vietnam War made it difficult for many state governments to balance their budgets without raising taxes or cutting services. Lottery advocates, no longer able to sell the idea that a statewide lottery would float most of a state’s budget, ginned up other strategies. They started claiming that the proceeds from a lottery would cover a specific line item—usually education, but sometimes elder care or public parks or aid for veterans.

Defenders of the lottery also argued that it was a tax on the stupid, but Cohen writes that the argument “obscures the fact that lottery spending rises in response to economic fluctuation and because promotional efforts target low-income communities.” Even so, he notes, there is nothing inherently stupid about playing the lottery—it’s just a big gamble.