What is a Lottery?

A lottery is a game in which players buy numbered tickets, and winning depends on chance. The word is also used to refer to a situation in which something is determined by chance—such as the selection of judges, sports draft picks, or even which legislators get to be re-elected. It can even refer to an affair that one might call a matter of fate, as in Shakespeare’s “As it were the lottery of life.”

The odds of winning a lottery are low, and this makes it easy for people to play repeatedly. In fact, Cohen says, the number of tickets sold is highly responsive to economic fluctuations: Lottery sales rise as incomes fall, unemployment climbs, and poverty rates increase. And, as with many other commercial products, lottery marketers are well aware of the psychology of addiction. Everything from the look of the tickets to the math behind them is designed to keep people coming back for more.

In the late-twentieth century, when states were casting about for ways to float their budgets that wouldn’t upset an increasingly tax averse electorate, the lottery took off. Advocates of legalization began arguing that a lottery would pay for a single line item, usually something popular and nonpartisan—education, say, or elder care, or public parks, or aid for veterans. This approach, writes Cohen, gave lottery advocates the moral cover they needed to sell the idea to voters, assuring them that a vote for the lottery was not a vote for gambling but for an important service.