What’s Going on With the Lottery?


In a society where the repressive societal norms and practices that once served to defuse underlying discontent are now obsolete, many people find an outlet for their frustration by gambling. Whether they are playing in state lotteries or in privately run casinos, racetracks, or financial markets, many people find they can satisfy their craving for luck without breaking the law. But there is a lot more going on with lotteries than just that inextricable human impulse to gamble.

The casting of lots to determine fates and fortunes has a long history in human civilization, but the use of lotteries for material gain is of more recent origin. In the early modern period, governments and licensed promoters used lotteries to raise money for a variety of purposes, including building museums, repairing bridges, and supplying a battery of guns for Philadelphia’s defense and rebuilding Faneuil Hall in Boston.

In the first decade or two of operation, lottery revenues typically expand rapidly but then begin to level off and decline. To sustain revenues, lottery officials rely on innovations to keep up the interest of players, and new games are introduced frequently. As a result, few states have a coherent “lottery policy.” Instead, individual officials inherit policies and a dependence on revenues that they cannot control or manage.