The lottery is a game of chance. It’s also a gilded trap that entices people with dreams of instant riches. The big thing that the lottery does is it dangles this promise of wealth in an age when wealth inequality is high and social mobility low. This is why it’s so hard to stop ourselves from buying that ticket, even though we know the odds are against us.
Lotteries are a form of gambling, and most state governments tax the winnings. As Cohen explains, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, states faced budget crises, and they looked for ways to raise money without angering anti-tax voters. Those campaigns were successful, and by the mid-twentieth century, the lottery had become an established part of the American landscape.
But the moral problems with lotteries are not as straightforward as they seem. As a general rule, if the entertainment value of the lottery is high enough for a particular individual, then the disutility of losing money on the tickets is outweighed by the utility of the monetary and non-monetary benefits of playing.
So, in the end, most people feel okay about their decisions to buy tickets, even if those tickets are a form of gambling. That’s probably because there’s another message that comes along with them: namely, that it’s a good idea to buy a lottery ticket because it raises money for the state. This is a strange claim, but it’s a real one.