The History of the Lottery


A competition in which numbered tickets are sold and prizes given to holders of the winning numbers, often as a way to raise money for a state or charity. Also known as a bonanza, keno, lotto, and raffle.

The lottery is a popular pastime in many countries and has long been used to select everything from school teachers to Supreme Court justices. Its appeal may be explained by the fact that people know that the odds of winning are long—but they still buy tickets, believing that even a tiny sliver of hope is better than no hope at all.

During the mid-twentieth century, when states began looking for ways to increase revenue without inflaming antitax zealots, the lottery became a favorite solution. New Hampshire approved the first state-run lottery in 1964, and within a decade 13 more did so. State-run lotteries accounted for more than sixty per cent of all state gambling revenues by the early nineteen eighties.

Defenders of the lottery claim that its proceeds benefit a specific public good, such as education, and that it is therefore a responsible alternative to raising taxes or cutting programs. But this argument is flawed, because the lottery is a form of taxation, and it skews state budgets in unpredictable ways. In addition, as Clotfelter and Cook note, lotteries have been successful at gaining public approval even when state governments are in fiscal good health.

In the past, lotteries were tangled up with slavery, and George Washington ran a Virginia lottery that included human beings as prizes. In the nineteenth century, they morphed into an instrument of racial discrimination and were criticized by Alexander Hamilton as “a tax on stupidity.” But in the twenty-first century, the popularity of the lottery has exploded. It has become a kind of national addiction, and people keep playing, even when the chances of winning are much lower than ever before.

People who play the lottery have all sorts of quote-unquote systems that they claim will help them win, such as buying tickets only at certain stores or at particular times of day. But these claims are based on a fundamental misreading of the odds, and a flawed view of what it means to gamble. The real message that state lotteries are conveying is that it’s okay to spend money that you could use for something more important on a pipe dream that might never come true. That’s a terrible message to send, especially to young people who are most likely to play.