The History of the Lottery

A lottery is a game of chance in which people pay to guess numbers that are randomly spit out by machines and, if enough match those drawn, win prizes. It is one of the most common and popular means of raising money, with a long history that goes back centuries. It is often promoted by the government or its licensed promoters to raise funds for public projects. Unlike other commercial products that can be purchased by all, lotteries are typically heavily advertised in neighborhoods disproportionately composed of poor, black, and Latino people.

A version of the lottery dates to the Old Testament, in which Moses is instructed to divide land by lot. Later, Roman emperors used it to give away property and slaves. It spread to America with the European settlement of the continent and helped finance many projects, including Harvard, Dartmouth, Yale, King’s College (now Columbia), William and Mary, and Union colleges. Privately organized lotteries were also common, especially in the early years of the American Revolution.

In the seventeenth century, lotteries were often tangled up with slavery in unpredictable ways. George Washington managed a Virginia lottery whose prizes included human beings, and a former slave, Denmark Vesey, won the South Carolina lottery and went on to foment a slave rebellion. The lottery was not always a popular funding source, but it proved to be an amazingly flexible tool for raising money for public projects, and was often a way for wealthy businessmen to avoid paying taxes.

During the eighteenth century, lotteries began to lose popularity, as state revenues shrank under the strain of population growth and inflation. It was difficult for many states to balance their budgets without either raising taxes or cutting public services, and both options engendered strong opposition from anti-tax voters.

It was during this period that the modern lottery emerged, as state governments searched for budget solutions that would not enrage their anti-tax constituents. Lotteries were an attractive option because they did not raise taxes and could be funded by ticket sales, which did not require a majority vote of the legislature or the governor.

In the modern lottery, people buy tickets to try to win a prize, which can be anything from a Snickers bar to an entire house. The odds of winning are extremely low, but the games are designed to keep people coming back for more, a strategy not unlike that of video-game manufacturers and tobacco companies. It is a strategy that has worked well for them, and it may work even better for state lottery commissions. But this is not necessarily a good thing for society as a whole. As Cohen argues, the true cost of the lottery is not reflected in the prizes awarded, but rather in how much people lose and become addicted to it. This is a serious problem, not least because it undermines the legitimacy of other forms of gambling. It is time to put the lottery out of its misery.