The History of the Lottery


Throughout history, people have been using lots to make decisions and determine fates. It’s the genesis of everything from Moses and the biblical “casting of lots” to modern state lotteries. Benjamin Franklin used one to buy cannons for Philadelphia’s defense, and George Washington was the manager of a lottery that advertised land and slaves as prizes in The Virginia Gazette. The modern lottery is an elaborate arrangement in which people pay money for a chance to win prizes, including cash. The prizes are allocated through a process that relies entirely on chance, and the odds of winning are very long.

Typically, tickets are sold for a drawing that takes place in the future. Ticket sales expand dramatically after the initial introduction of the game, but eventually level off and sometimes decline. This “boredom factor” is why state lotteries constantly introduce new games to maintain or increase revenues.

Lotteries are also used to generate a windfall of revenue, and politicians like them because they are a form of painless taxation – players voluntarily spend their own money, while the government gains a large sum without raising taxes or cutting other programs. However, that arrangement is increasingly untenable as the cost of social safety nets grows.

For many lottery players, the reason they keep buying tickets is that it provides an opportunity to dream – irrationally and mathematically impossible though it may be. Especially for those who don’t see much in the way of prospects in their own lives, the hope that they may someday be able to change their fortunes is worth a few minutes, hours or days spent on a lottery ticket.