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Throughout history, lottery games have offered a cheap way for governments to raise money. Early America, for instance, was short on tax revenue but long on need for public works, and lotteries provided an appealing alternative. Harvard, Yale, and Princeton were partially financed by them, as was the Revolutionary War.

In time, however, these early lottery profits dried up as states began to feel the strain of a growing population and inflation, resulting in a budget crunch that forced them to either raise taxes or cut services. At the same time, state governments became aware that there was a lot of money to be made by lottery promoters.

This convergence of interests led to the birth of a new lottery culture, one that Cohen describes as “morally corrupt” and “deeply unethical.” Governments figured if people were going to gamble anyway, they might as well make some of the money, so they started running their own lotteries, too. In the process, they dismissed centuries of ethical objections to gambling and embraced an enterprise that preyed on the poor while giving wealthy white voters moral cover.