The History of the Lottery


A lottery is a form of gambling that involves the drawing of numbers at random for a prize. Some governments outlaw it, while others endorse it to the extent of organizing a national or state lottery. The odds of winning vary wildly, as do the prices of tickets and prizes. But one thing is certain: the more the jackpot grows, the more people buy tickets.

The popularity of lotteries in America reflects, in large part, a deep desire for unimaginable wealth, which has coincided with the decline of financial security for the majority of working Americans. Since the nineteen-seventies, income gaps have widened, unemployment and health-care costs have increased, and the promise that hard work would lead to better lives for children than those of their parents has largely proved false.

In this context, many people have come to see the lottery as a harmless alternative to higher taxes that could help pay for schools and other public services. But a deeper analysis of the lottery’s history suggests that this narrative is flawed, both morally and empirically.

As early as the seventeenth century, lotteries were common in Europe, where they were used to finance everything from town fortifications to church construction. They also served as a painless alternative to taxation, which was seen as a particularly unpleasant way to raise revenue. Lottery profits were even used to fund the Continental Congress and Harvard, Yale, and Princeton, though such uses were never intended as a replacement for traditional revenue streams.

Early lotteries tended to be rigged, with the highest odds of winning the biggest prizes going to the most wealthy members of society. They were often associated with slavery as well, with George Washington managing a lottery that offered human beings for sale and one enslaved man purchasing his freedom through a South Carolina lottery.

Advocates of legalized lotteries in America have tried to counter these historical and ethical objections by arguing that, if people are going to gamble anyway, government might as well take advantage of the profits. This argument has some validity, but it has limits. In particular, Cohen notes, the fact that lotteries are heavily promoted in neighborhoods where people are disproportionately poor and black is an inconvenient truth for proponents of their cause.

In addition, lottery profits can be used to subsidize other forms of gambling, which undermines the integrity of lotteries and their ability to raise money for good causes. Finally, a lottery can be an expensive affair for the state, requiring it to pay high fees to private advertising firms to promote its products and increase ticket sales. All of these factors contribute to the myth that lottery profits are “tax-free.” In reality, they’re a costly and often illegitimate form of revenue. And that’s a myth that needs to be buried.