The History of the Lottery


Lottery is an arrangement where one or more prizes are allocated through a process that relies entirely on chance. Prizes may be goods or services, property, money, or even life-changing opportunities. Lotteries have long been a popular way to raise funds for public use. They can be conducted privately or publicly, by an individual, a company, or a state or country. Some governments prohibit lotteries, while others endorse them and regulate them. Lottery laws vary by jurisdiction, but the majority of countries and territories have legalized them in some form.

In the 17th and 18th centuries, people flocked to lottery games as a painless form of taxation. They raised money for everything from churches to canals, as well as supplying the British army and the American colonies with guns and ammunition. The lottery was also used to finance a number of private ventures, including the foundation of several colleges (including Princeton and Columbia) as well as many American cities, such as Philadelphia and Boston.

The modern state lottery began in New Hampshire in 1964, and since then it has spread to every region of the United States. Each state adopts a different model for its own lotteries, but the overall patterns are remarkably similar: the arguments for and against the introduction of a state lottery, the structure of the resulting public corporation, and the evolution of the operation of the lottery have all followed a familiar pattern.

When state legislatures and voters first debated the possibility of introducing a state lottery, they largely focused on its value as a source of “painless” revenue: the idea was that it would allow citizens to voluntarily spend their money for a government service while not suffering the economic hardship of an unpopular tax increase. But this arrangement has proved to be flawed.

Aside from the obvious moral problems associated with gambling, it is difficult to see how a government can justify promoting an activity that undermines the dignity and self-respect of the majority of its citizens. The fact is that, when it comes to winning the lottery, only a small minority of people are actually going to get rich. The rest will end up frustrated, resentful, and unhappy with their lives, regardless of how much they win.

In a time of increasing inequality and declining social mobility, lotteries are dangling the promise of quick riches to a growing number of Americans who feel that the lottery is their only hope of getting ahead. But is this a function that government should be performing?