The Truth About the Lottery

In a country where inequality is soaring and social mobility is at an all-time low, lottery draws are luring millions of people with the promise of quick riches. But there’s a lot more going on here than just the inextricable human urge to gamble, and it’s not pretty.

The lottery is not a government program, but rather an arrangement that dishes out prizes to paying participants based on a process that relies entirely on chance. It can be applied to a wide range of circumstances, from kindergarten admission at a prestigious school to the selection of new players for an NBA draft. There’s even a lottery that decides which companies will get the opportunity to provide a vaccine for a fast-moving virus.

When state leaders began pushing for a lottery in the immediate postwar period, they believed that it would float a full array of government services without irritating an anti-tax electorate. This was a huge misconception. As it turned out, the lottery was a very expensive way to run a government, requiring enormous amounts of public money for marketing and administration. And the vast majority of tickets never won a prize.

What’s more, the fact is that the more people buy lottery tickets, the worse the odds become. Those one-in-three million odds that Alexander Hamilton spoke of in his letter grew worse and worse, because more and more people were buying tickets and so the percentage of combinations covered by each ticket dwindled. This is a phenomenon that mathematicians like Stefan Mandel call the “law of diminishing returns.”