The Official Lottery

Various states operate official lottery games, in which players pick a series of numbers that are drawn for a prize. They are regulated by state law, and laws regarding fraud, forgery and theft apply. Lottery proceeds are used for public service and infrastructure in the state. They are not subject to income or sales tax. This type of lottery is different from privately organized lotteries, which are based on buying and selling products or properties, such as cars or houses, for a small prize.

In the early nineteen-twenties, when state budgets were growing unsustainable and a backlash against taxes was brewing, lottery advocates honed their pitch. They stopped trying to sell the idea as a statewide silver bullet and began arguing that it would pay for a single line item, almost always a government service that was popular and nonpartisan, like education or elder care. Moreover, they promised that a vote against the lottery was a vote against those services.

In addition to these more narrowly defined claims, the lottery industry embraced psychological tricks, such as creating the illusion of choice (multiple games, multiple drawing dates, etc.) and using the appeal of big prizes to lure players in. Lottery marketing resembled strategies used by the tobacco and video-game industries. These tricks, Cohen writes, gave state lottery promoters “moral cover to ignore long-standing ethical objections to gambling.” And they worked. Even devout Protestants, who once viewed the idea of state-sponsored gambling as morally unconscionable, were persuaded by these new arguments.