The Lottery As a Social Control Device

The lottery, in which a ticket is drawn for a prize, is the most common form of gambling. But there are other ways to gamble, and even a little betting can have big consequences.

The word lottery derives from the Dutch noun lotterij, or “drawing lots.” A shortened version of the term is used in English, and it has been in use since the fourteenth century. Early lotteries were often used to build town fortifications and to raise funds for the poor. Later, they helped to spread the European colonization of America, despite strict Protestant proscriptions against gambling.

By the late nineteen-seventies, state lotteries had become a major source of revenue for many states. But, as Cohen points out, this increase in state lotteries coincided with a period of decline in financial security for working Americans. The income gap widened, pensions and health care costs rose, and the long-standing national promise that hard work would eventually render children better off than their parents became harder to believe.

Lotteries, with their promise of instant riches, seemed to offer a tempting alternative to those concerns. Besides, people were already gambling anyway, so governments might as well pocket the profits. Lotteries also provided a moral cover for other kinds of government-sponsored gambling, including slot machines and racetracks. Lotteries were a point of agreement between Thomas Jefferson, who saw them as no riskier than farming, and Alexander Hamilton, who grasped the simple logic that everyone would prefer to win a little to lose nothing.

But there is another way to think about the lottery: as a tool for social control. Lotteries are designed to keep players coming back for more, and they employ all the same tactics as tobacco companies and video game manufacturers, ranging from advertising strategies to the design of the tickets themselves. The player base is disproportionately low-income, less educated, and nonwhite; as much as 70 to 80 percent of total lottery sales come from these groups.

In a real-world sense, then, the lottery is a form of social control—and in some cases, it can be very effective. Consider the case of a lottery for units in a subsidized housing block or kindergarten placements at a prestigious public school. Those who are not selected will continue to pay their lottery tickets, and those who are chosen will receive the benefits of the system.

There is, however, one problem with this kind of lottery: It is not fair. The same numbers can be picked multiple times, and no set of numbers is luckier than any other. Attempting to find patterns in the random numbers that are spit out is not only foolhardy, it can be dangerous. For example, some players have been arrested for illegally analyzing lottery data to try to spot trends that could be exploited. If you want to play the lottery, do your homework—but be sure to purchase only legal tickets. And always remember that the odds are against you.