The Real Story of the Lottery


A lottery is a gambling game wherein one pays a small amount of money, perhaps as little as a dollar, for a chance to win a prize. It is a form of betting on chance, and it is generally considered legal and ethical because it does not involve gambling with other people’s money. The drawing of lots to determine property ownership has a long record in human history, including biblical examples and a number of ancient Roman lotteries. The modern state lottery is an elaboration on this practice, and it has been a major source of revenue for states.

Typically, states legalize the lottery by legislating that it is not gambling; they then set up a state agency to run it (or license a private firm in return for a portion of the profits); it begins with a modest number of relatively simple games and progressively expands the offerings as the market demands them. The idea is that the more complex and entertaining the games, the more likely people will play, and as their participation increases, the revenues will increase as well.

The principal argument for the lottery in every state is that it is a source of “painless” revenue: players voluntarily spend their money (as opposed to the general public being taxed), and the money the lottery raises will go to support things the voters would like the state to do. This argument was especially persuasive in the immediate post-World War II period, when growing state government expenditures and rising inflation threatened to deprive many Americans of much of what they had come to expect from their states as services, such as roads, schools, hospitals, libraries, parks, and so on.

Lotteries have been around a long time, but they started to take on special significance in the United States in the nineteen-sixties. That’s when the prosperity that accompanied the expansion of American industry collided with the fact that state governments needed to increase their services, but could not do so without raising taxes or cutting programs—both of which were resoundingly unpopular with voters.

In that era, lotteries were the answer to the question of how to pay for the new programs. Politicians and voters alike saw them as a painless way to collect money for the common good.

But, as Cohen shows, the real story behind the lottery is not so straightforward. Lotteries attract players by selling them a lie: that their lives will improve if they can just get lucky with the numbers. This is a form of covetousness, which the Bible explicitly forbids, and it explains why so many people are drawn to these games. They want the world that money can buy. But, as the scriptures make clear, this world cannot last. And, in the end, only God can give us true wealth and lasting happiness. (Reporting by Peter G. Bergen; editing by John L. McCrary) Copyright 2014 by Peter Bergen and John L. McCrary.