Official Lottery

Official Lottery is the first book to explore the entire history of state-run lotteries in America and their role in raising public funds. Cohen draws on a broad range of sources and he writes clearly and compellingly. He begins by describing the earliest lotteries, which in the fourteenth century were used to fund town fortifications and to provide charity for the poor. They eventually made their way to England, where the first national lottery was chartered by Queen Elizabeth I in 1567. Tickets cost ten shillings, and winners received not only cash prizes but also immunity from arrest, a great advantage in those days of high crime.

Lottery revenues, Cohen points out, played a critical role in colonial America as well. While American culture has long been averse to taxation, the nation needed roads, libraries, canals, schools, and universities. In the seventeenth century, a lottery raised money to help finance the Massachusetts militia and a number of fortifications. Harvard and Yale were financed by lotteries, and the Continental Congress hoped to raise funds for the Revolutionary War by holding a lottery.

In the twentieth century, state-run lotteries took off in earnest. The nineteen-sixties saw a severe recession and skyrocketing inflation, and as federal aid to the states declined, balancing budgets became increasingly difficult. At the same time, voters became more and more averse to raising taxes. Lotteries offered a politically acceptable alternative, and they became wildly popular.

After New Hampshire introduced a lottery in 1964, other states followed suit; the majority of them were in the Northeast and the Rust Belt. As the national tax revolt gathered momentum in the late nineteen-sixties, however, critics of lotteries began to focus attention on specific features of their operations. They pointed out that the earmarking of lottery profits to a particular program, such as education, allows the legislature to reduce the appropriations it would otherwise have to make from the general fund, and that the resulting savings often are offset by increases in illegal gambling activities and other social costs.

The critics’ arguments are based on the simple premise that state-run lotteries are inherently incompatible with public policy. As they argue, lotteries promote addictive gambling behavior and impose a regressive tax on lower-income groups. They are a source of corruption and may divert valuable resources from programs that need them most. Despite such criticisms, the popularity of the lottery seems likely to continue in America for a while. The most important question, argues Cohen, is whether the current generation of voters will have the courage to demand changes in its laws before it is too late.