What is a Lottery?


A competition based on chance in which tickets are sold and prizes are awarded to the holders of numbers drawn at random, typically as a means of raising money. Also called keno, raffle, and tombola.

When you describe something as a lottery, you’re saying that what happens depends entirely on luck or chance—that, for example, which judges are assigned to a case is always a bit of a lottery. The idea behind a lottery is that everyone has an equal chance of winning, and the winner is determined by some combination of luck and skill (i.e., chance plus a little knowledge of the law).

The modern lottery began in the nineteen-sixties, Cohen writes, “when growing awareness of all the money to be made in gambling collided with a crisis in state funding.” Inflation and the cost of the Vietnam War, among other factors, had left states short on revenue without any easy options for raising taxes or cutting services. That’s when New Hampshire, famously tax-averse, approved the first state lottery.

States’ growing reliance on the lottery was a response to the fact that they could no longer count on federal funds to pay for everything from public education to health care. In addition, in the late-twentieth century America, voters grew increasingly averse to paying any taxes at all.

Lotteries were seen as a morally acceptable alternative to raising taxes and paying for public goods. In a country that had once been defined politically by an antipathy to taxation, they were an attractive solution because they didn’t actually require much from anyone: “nothing but an occasional chance to win a small sum of money.”

In many cases, the lottery is used to fill specific needs—whether it’s a sports team among equally competing players or positions in a school or university. The process is also often seen as a fair way to distribute scholarships or awards among equally qualified students or candidates.

But there’s a darker side to the lottery: Numerous studies show that people who live below the poverty line tend to play it more frequently than those who do not, and they are more likely to be drawn to the biggest prizes. As a result, critics argue that the lottery is really just a disguised tax on the poor.

The purchase of a lottery ticket cannot be rationally accounted for by decision models that use expected value maximization, Cohen points out. That’s because lottery tickets generally cost more than they’re worth, according to lottery mathematics, so a person who maximizes expected utility wouldn’t buy them. Instead, people buy tickets because they find the entertainment value—or at least the fantasy of becoming wealthy—worthwhile. It’s the same reason that people will sometimes gamble on their own lives. They want the thrill and the opportunity to win, even though they know that the odds are against them. They’re betting on the next big thing.