The History of the Lottery

A lottery is a way of allocating prizes to participants by chance. The prizes can be cash or goods. The concept is ancient, and there are examples of lotteries dating back to the Roman Empire (Nero was a fan) and the Bible. The casting of lots has been used for everything from selecting a bride for an Egyptian prince to determining the fate of Jesus’ garments after his Crucifixion. Lotteries are also popular in modern times, and some people have made a living by running them.

It is hard to know whether state-run lotteries promote gambling or just make it more convenient for those who already like to gamble. But they do seem to play on the psychology of addiction, and there are plenty of parallels between lottery advertising strategies and those of tobacco or video-game makers. Moreover, lottery commissions are not above exploiting the fact that winning a prize requires paying for a ticket with money.

The story of the lottery reflects the nation’s complicated relationship with gambling. In its earliest days, the game was a tool of exigency. Early America was short on taxes and long on public needs, and lotteries proved an attractive alternative to raising funds for everything from churches to colleges to the Continental Congress’s war against England. Lotteries helped to finance the Civil War, and the post-World War II period saw an explosion in the number of state-run games. Those that grew fastest were in states with large social safety nets and, as Cohen notes, “a politics defined by an aversion to taxation.”

As a political tool, the lottery was a winner. It allowed states to expand services without putting too much pressure on middle- and working-class taxpayers, who were already reeling from the effects of a decade of rising inflation and soaring federal spending. The lottery’s popularity was fueled in part by the belief that it would pay for a particular line item, usually education, but sometimes elder care, public parks, or veterans’ benefits. This narrower approach helped to soothe ethical objections, as it made it clear that a vote for the lottery was not, in effect, a vote for gambling.

Today, a majority of states fund their government through lotteries. They collect billions of dollars annually, and they are an important source of revenue. But the money they raise is not a free gift: it comes with an opportunity cost, which amounts to the amount of time and energy that the players could have spent working or saving for their own goals. Most of the winners will not even spend their prize money all at once, and most will have to give up some or all of it for tax purposes. For those who do win, it can be an incredible experience but one that will probably not last very long. For most players, it is more likely to be a fling than a lifelong habit. That, in itself, is a sad commentary on the lottery’s role as a national pastime.

Posted in: Gambling