The History of the Lottery


The first recorded lotteries in the Low Countries began in the fifteenth century, when towns held them to raise money for town fortifications and charity for the poor. Tickets cost ten shillings, which was a considerable sum in those days. Eventually, the practice spread across the continent.

Cohen’s article focuses on lottery in its modern form, which began in the nineteen-sixties when “growing awareness of all the money to be made in the gambling business collided with a crisis in state funding.” The economy was contracting; public-service cuts were unpopular with voters; and it had become increasingly difficult for many states to balance their budgets without raising taxes or cutting services.

In an era defined politically by an aversion to taxation, lotteries proved an attractive alternative to higher taxes. In fact, they became so popular that many of the nation’s prestigious colleges and universities were partly funded through lotteries. But while winning the lottery was a sure way to improve your standard of living, it was not a guarantee that you would lead a happy or fulfilling life. There are plenty of stories of lottery winners whose fortunes quickly turned sour, leading to drug addiction, divorce and even suicide.

A big reason for that is that, unlike many other forms of gambling, lottery plays are open to all. Your race, gender, religion, political affiliation, current economic status and the like have absolutely no bearing on your chances of winning. So long as the entertainment value you receive from playing exceeds the disutility of a possible monetary loss, you can rationally spend money on a ticket.

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Cape Town, South Africa