The History of the Lottery

The History of the Lottery


A lottery is an event in which a prize is awarded to a person by drawing lots. The process may be used to decide a variety of things, from ownership or rights in property to the winning numbers for a game of chance. It is generally considered to be a form of gambling. However, it has been used for a variety of other purposes, such as filling vacancies in sports teams among equally competitive players or placing people into positions at work. In addition, it is a way to raise money for a particular purpose.

Lotteries were common in the Roman Empire-Nero was a big fan-and are documented in the Bible, where they are used for everything from determining kingship to deciding who gets Jesus’ garments after the Crucifixion. The practice was brought to the United States in 1612, when James I of England used it to provide funds for the first permanent British settlement in America. From there, it spread. Lotteries raised money for wars, towns, colleges, and public-works projects all across the country.

In the nineteenth century, however, a new kind of lottery took hold. The nation was experiencing a tax revolt, and lawmakers seized on the idea of state-run lotteries as a way to raise revenue without risking the ire of voters. Lottery advocates argued that since people were going to gamble anyway, the government might as well collect the profits. It was a shrewd argument, Cohen writes, but it came with limits: People would still object to paying taxes for services they didn’t want to use, and the profits from lottery games wouldn’t make up for lost income taxes or sales taxes.

From the beginning, a lottery’s odds of winning were inherently stacked against players. Tickets cost ten shillings, an expensive sum in those days, and winners were selected only by luck-the more tickets in the pool, the smaller the chances of winning. Even so, the lottery became enormously popular. To help boost interest, commissioners began lifting prize caps and adding more numbers to the pools, lowering the odds even further.

Eventually, jackpots grew to apparently newsworthy amounts. And lottery sales boomed, especially in poorer neighborhoods where exposure to advertising was heavy. The lottery was an addictive product, and the state’s marketing tactics were not dissimilar from those of tobacco companies or video-game manufacturers.

In the end, a lottery is a game that exploits human greed and indifference to random chance. But it is also an example of how, in some cases, the power of a market can overwhelm ethical objections. Ultimately, it is up to consumers to decide whether they want to play. And if they do, the decision must be based on their understanding of the odds and the true nature of the lottery. Otherwise, they could find themselves a winner without a prize.