The History of the Lottery

A lottery is a game in which numbers are drawn at random and winners are allocated prizes according to a process that relies on chance. Prizes can be anything from cash and goods to services such as kindergarten placements or units in a subsidized housing block. In the United States, people spent about $100 billion on lottery tickets in 2021—making it the most popular form of gambling in the country. Lotteries are promoted by state governments as a way to generate revenue without raising taxes. For politicians facing voters who resent paying higher taxes, lotteries offer an appealing gimmick that makes revenue appear seemingly out of thin air.

The first recorded lotteries were held in the Low Countries in the 15th century to raise money for town fortifications and charity for the poor. They proved wildly popular, and were hailed as a painless way for governments to impose a tax without fear of losing the support of their constituents. In time, however, the reality became much more counterintuitive. As prize amounts grew, so did the odds of winning. The difference between one-in-three million odds and one-in-three-hundred-million odds didn’t matter to most players, but the difference did to lottery commissions.

To bolster sales, commissions began to advertise that the lottery was more than just a game. They promoted that it was a tradition that had lasted hundreds of years. They also tried to convince people that playing the lottery was a patriotic duty. Those who refused to participate in the lottery were accused of “being crazy fools.”

In the end, the lottery was not just a game but a form of social control. The people who were most likely to play the lottery tended to be those with few other choices for discretionary spending. They tended to be the lowest quintile of income earners, often with families that depended on them for financial support. The lottery was a form of socialization, of course, but it also offered the prospect of an escape from the bottom quintile through the power of luck.

Defenders of the lottery sometimes argue that the regressivity is unimportant, that most people don’t understand how unlikely they are to win and that they enjoy the game anyway. But this argument ignores the fact that the lottery is a commercial product that is responsive to economic fluctuation. Its sales increase when incomes fall and unemployment rises, and it is advertised most heavily in neighborhoods disproportionately likely to be filled with poor and black residents. For these residents, the entertainment value of lottery playing may be outweighed by the negative utility of a monetary loss. The gamblers’ irrational behavior is not a result of stupidity, but of a simple calculation. As long as they believe that the lottery is a patriotic tradition and that those who don’t play are “packs of crazy fools,” it is unlikely that anyone will challenge its authority.