The lottery is the most popular form of gambling in the United States, with Americans spending upwards of $100 billion on tickets each year. State governments promote lotteries as a way to raise money, and that’s probably true; they do generate revenue. But what’s not so clear is whether that revenue is worth the trade-offs that people make when they spend a small fraction of their incomes on lottery tickets.
One important thing to remember is that winning the lottery is statistically improbable. There’s a much higher chance that you will be struck by lightning than there is of winning the Powerball jackpot. The odds of winning are so slim that some people feel a compulsion to keep playing, even when they know they’re wasting their money. This is known as “lottery addiction.” In some cases, lottery addicts find themselves worse off after winning the lottery than they were before.
Lotteries are a classic example of how difficult it is to make rational choices in the real world. The concept behind lotteries is simple: a group of people puts in some money, and a computer then randomly selects numbers from a pool for the participants to win. The idea is that, over time, the chances of winning will go up (although it’s worth noting that there’s also a risk that you won’t win at all).
In fact, drawing lots to decide who gets something was so common in ancient times that the term “lottery” itself comes from the Old Testament and other early religious texts, including the Book of Numbers and biblical accounts of the casting of lots to determine everything from the kingship of Israel to which garments Jesus would keep after his Crucifixion. But lotteries were not widely available until the 18th century, when they helped finance English colonization of America despite Protestant prohibitions against gambling.
The popularity of the lottery was partly driven by politicians who saw it as a way to finance public services without raising taxes, which they knew would be politically unpopular. They claimed that, since many people were already gambling anyway, it might as well be legally sanctioned by the government.
But the bigger reason was that the state could subsidize some of the winners while forcing other citizens to pay for it through increased sales or property taxes. This arrangement lasted until the end of the post-World War II golden age, when it began to fray around the edges and people started to demand more for their tax dollars. Then, the states started to realize that their old model of generating revenue from relatively low-level activities was no longer working—and they desperately needed new sources of money. The solution they came up with was to turn to the lottery, which they promoted as a sort of budgetary miracle. This article originally appeared on The Baffler.