The Dark Side of the Lottery


A lottery is an arrangement in which a prize is awarded by chance to people who pay money to participate. Prizes may be small or large, but costs and profits are deducted from the pool, leaving the remainder for the winners. It can be simple or complex; a simple lottery involves just one stage of selection (such as numbers), while a complex lottery may have multiple stages of competition that require skill to progress to the final round.

Lotteries have a long history—the casting of lots to determine fates is attested to in the Bible, and Roman Emperor Nero was a fan of them. But the modern version is a recent invention. It began in the nineteen-sixties, as states’ budget crises became more acute and finding ways to raise revenues without inflaming anti-tax sentiments became harder.

The state lottery emerged as a solution to this dilemma. It was billed as a “painless tax,” because people voluntarily spend their money to play and the winnings go to something they care about, such as education or public parks. And it’s proven to be popular, with states generating billions of dollars a year from the lottery.

But there’s a dark side to this story, and it’s not just that the lottery isn’t actually a painless tax. It’s also that the way we play the lottery contributes to a national obsession with unimaginable wealth, and the elitist fantasy that anyone can win it if they just try hard enough.