The History of the Lottery


A lottery is a game in which a large number of tickets are sold for a small prize. It is popular with the public and is sometimes used for charitable purposes. It can be addictive and can cause financial problems. However, it is important to understand that there are ways to avoid addiction and to limit your involvement with the lottery.

It was in the nineteen-sixties, Cohen writes, that the modern lottery first took shape, when growing awareness of all the money to be made in gambling collided with a crisis in state funding. States that provided a generous social safety net were finding it harder and harder to balance their budgets without raising taxes or cutting services, and both options were unpopular with voters.

In response, a new breed of political leaders turned to the lottery. They dismissed long-standing ethical objections to gambling, arguing that if people were going to gamble anyway, it might as well be taxed and used for the benefit of society. It was an argument that had its limits—it would also have been fine for governments to sell heroin, for instance—but it gave moral cover to people who approved of lotteries for other reasons.

The earliest recorded lotteries in Europe were held by towns in the Low Countries in the fifteenth century, to raise money for town fortifications and charity for the poor. The word ‘lottery’ is thought to be derived from the Middle Dutch noun lot, meaning “fate” or “destiny.” By the nineteenth century, privately organized lotteries were common in England and America, where they helped build institutions such as Harvard, Dartmouth, Yale, King’s College (now Columbia), and Union and Brown universities.