The Lottery Wars: Long Odds, Fast Money, and the Battle Over an American Institution

Champions of lottery have never shied from invoking the absurd in its favor, “If lotteries are all great evils, then it is better that they should exist as monopolies than the right to conduct them should be general,” wrote a defender of the privately owned 19th-century Louisiana State Lottery Company. In his book, The Lottery Wars, Matthew Sweeney sets out to chart the battles over this American institution. The Virginia Company used London lotteries to raise funds for the Jamestown settlement; the freshly emancipated Colonies used lotteries as a means to avoid the troublesome question of taxes. At the start of the 20th century the legal tide turned, and lotteries spent decades underground — only to re-emerge legally in the 1960s, as governments became desperate to access lottery’s lucrative revenue streams. The most provocative insight in Sweeney’s book comes in his map of the relationship of early lotteries to modern American financial markets. In Colonial days, raising large sums was difficult — overseas investors viewed the U.S. as an untested investment. Early private lotteries “provided a valuable service to municipalities and state in need of finance. They pooled and assigned value to the various confusing notes on the market. The business overlapped with securities brokerage, bond sales, and other forms of debt marketing.” Given recent stock market news, it’s perhaps not so shocking to find that several lottery operators ended up as lions in the “legitimate” financial world. This book is a welcome investigation of this often mysterious engine of commerce and dreams.