The Lottery and the War on Taxes

The lottery was once a popular way to fund public services, but it came under attack from people of all ideological and social backgrounds. These critics questioned both the morality of government-sanctioned gambling and the amount of money that states stood to gain from the games. Among the most vocal were devout Protestants, who viewed state-run lotteries as unconscionable. They argued that the proceeds from the games were being diverted from churches and charitable causes, and pointed to a Louisiana state lottery company rife with corruption.

Yet the need for money trumped all of these objections, and states began to embrace lottery games in the mid-20th century. They needed revenue and, as Cohen points out, the population was becoming increasingly disaffected with taxes.

Despite the fact that lottery funds are inefficiently collected and end up representing a drop in the bucket for actual state governments (by some estimates as little as 1 to 2 percent of total state revenue), pro-lottery advocates still had a powerful argument to make. They began to argue that the games would fund a single line item, invariably a public service that was popular and nonpartisan—education, but sometimes elder care or parks or aid for veterans.

And they also shifted the debate from arguing that state lotteries were “taxing the stupid” to saying that players knew the odds were bad but played anyway because of a meritocratic belief that they were bound to get rich eventually. As a result, lotteries became a political weapon in the war on taxes and a receptacle for people’s fantasies about the good life.