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From the earliest days of the American Republic, state governments were defined by their aversion to taxation, which made lotteries attractive fundraising alternatives. They were used for a variety of purposes, from erecting town fortifications to founding colleges and churches. By the fourteen-hundreds, the practice was widespread in England and America, where the Continental Congress funded its Revolutionary War effort partly through a lottery.

Advocates of legalizing state lotteries argued that they would fill the coffers and relieve legislators of the need to raise taxes, which in turn would keep more money in the pockets of average citizens. Those claims were often misleading, Cohen writes. Lottery proceeds, even after adjusting for inflation, never came close to covering the cost of running a state. But they did help governments avoid the political cost of hiking taxes.

As the popularity of the games grew, advocates altered their rhetoric. Instead of arguing that lottery money would float most of a state’s budget, they began to claim that it would pay for a single line item, invariably education but occasionally elder care or public parks or aid for veterans. That shift in emphasis allowed legalization advocates to frame the issue as nonpartisan and popular, while making it easier for voters to decide whether or not to approve the gambling.