The History of the Lottery

The lottery is an arrangement in which a group of individuals pays a sum of money in order to win a prize based on chance. The prizes vary in value and may be goods, services, or cash. In modern times, the majority of states have a state-run lottery. The idea of a lottery is rooted in ancient practices. The Old Testament instructs Moses to divide land by lot, and Roman emperors used the lottery as a way to give away property and slaves to their guests at Saturnalian feasts. Today, the lottery is a popular form of gambling. It is played by millions of people, and many believe that it will lead to their personal salvation.

The modern lottery began in 1964, when New Hampshire established the first state-run game. Other states quickly followed, and today nearly all have lotteries. Most of these lotteries are monopolies operated by the state government, but some are run through private companies in exchange for a cut of the proceeds. Lotteries are often promoted as a way to raise revenue for public services, and their supporters point to them as an alternative to raising taxes.

While there are valid concerns about compulsive gambling, the fact is that the public loves to gamble. It is not uncommon for people to spend large amounts of money to try and win the jackpot, even though they know the odds are against them. Lotteries are a good way for governments to tap into this appetite for improbable wealth, without having to pay taxes or cutting other vital public programs.

State politicians often promote lotteries as “budgetary miracles,” Cohen writes, because they allow governments to generate huge revenues with little effort. These resources, in turn, can support a wide range of services, and the public at large can hardly argue with that. This is especially true in periods of economic stress, when politicians can point to lottery funds as an escape from painful tax hikes or service cuts.

In practice, however, the popularity of the lottery varies by state and over time. In the early nineteen-thirties, Cohen argues, it flourished in states with larger social safety nets and a reluctance to increase taxes. The late twentieth century, on the other hand, saw a national tax revolt, with voters turning against everything from local property taxes to federal income taxes.

Lottery opponents argue that state-run gambling is morally suspect. But some advocates, including members of the Continental Congress and the U.S. Senate, have dismissed this objection by arguing that, if people are going to play the lottery anyway, they might as well do so for public-good purposes. This argument has limits-by its logic, governments should also sell heroin-but it does provide a cover for those who approve of lotteries for other reasons.

A number of studies show that the lottery’s popularity depends on its being perceived as a source of “voluntary taxation.” As a result, the lottery is often favored by voters in low-tax and deficit-ridden states. Other studies have shown, however, that the objective fiscal circumstances of a state do not seem to influence whether or when it adopts a lottery.