Lottery is a form of gambling wherein players pay for a ticket, either in person or over the internet, and then hope to win a prize by matching the numbers randomly drawn. It is a popular pastime and an ancient tradition, with its origins dating back centuries. The Old Testament even mentions lotteries, and Roman emperors used them to give away land, slaves, and treasure. It was brought to America by British colonists, and the initial reaction was largely negative, with ten states banning it between 1844 and 1859.
Many people have been drawn to lottery playing by the allure of a huge jackpot, but there’s a lot more to it than that. There’s a basic human impulse to gamble, and lotteries play on that by dangling the promise of instant riches in an age of inequality and limited social mobility. That’s why you see billboards along the highway touting the Mega Millions or Powerball prizes, and it’s why lottery commercials have become so common on television.
The earliest lotteries were organized to raise money for town fortifications and the poor in the Low Countries during the 15th century. They are mentioned in town records, including those from Ghent, Utrecht, and Bruges, as early as 1445. It is likely that they were inspired by the casting of lots in the ancient world, from determining the next king of Israel to assigning who gets Jesus’ garments after the Crucifixion.
In the 1700s, it became common in several colonies to use lotteries to fund public works projects, including roads, libraries, schools, churches, and canals. Harvard, Yale, and Princeton were financed in part by lotteries, and the Continental Congress used one to raise money for the Revolutionary War. In addition to funding projects, lotteries became a popular source of revenue for the government without having to impose sales or income taxes, which were viewed as unpopular by voters.
But while there’s still a lot of talk about how the lottery is a “budgetary miracle” for state governments that can “make revenues appear seemingly out of thin air,” Cohen notes, advocates of legalization have stopped arguing that it would float the entire budget. Instead, they now argue that it would cover a single line item—invariably education, but sometimes elder care, or public parks, or aid for veterans. This narrower focus makes it easier to campaign for legalization: A vote for the lottery is not a vote against taxation, but for a much-needed service.