The Evolution of the Lottery


The lottery is a popular form of gambling wherein tickets are sold for a chance to win a prize, such as money or property. Although it is considered a form of gambling, the fact that the prize is allocated by chance and not by any merits or skill makes it less likely to fall under the category of illegal gambling. Lotteries are generally regulated by state law and have been around for centuries. They can be used for a variety of purposes, including raising funds for public projects and helping the poor. They are also a popular form of entertainment at public events, such as dinner parties and Saturnalian feasts.

Lottery has become a staple of American life, with people spending over $100 billion per year on tickets. States promote it as a way to raise revenue, but the question is whether that money is worth the price of citizens losing out on their dreams of instant wealth. The answer is probably yes, since the societal benefits of the lottery outweigh the costs. But there is something else going on here, and that’s the basic human impulse to gamble. People just plain old like to risk their money, which is why we see billboards that promise millions on the side of the highway.

In some ways, the lottery is just a modern version of the ancient practice of giving away land or slaves by lot. The biblical text gives several examples, and the Roman emperors even had a public lottery for slaves and property during the Saturnalian feasts. The early colonists established a state lottery to raise funds for the American Revolution, and Benjamin Franklin sponsored one to help pay his debts in 1776.

Today’s lotteries are much more sophisticated, but the general principles are the same. The state legislature passes a law to establish a lottery; creates a state agency or public corporation to run it; begins operations with a modest number of relatively simple games; and, due to constant pressure for additional revenues, progressively expands the game by adding new games and increasing ticket prices.

This evolution is a classic example of the way in which public policy is often made: piecemeal and incrementally, with little or no overall overview. Authority is fragmented between the executive and legislative branches, with special interests gaining influence over state policies. Those interests are often contradictory, and the result is that state officials find themselves with a gambling industry dependent on profits that they can’t really control.

While there are certainly some players who do well, the majority of those who play the lottery are low-income and not particularly well educated. The disproportionate share of lower-income and nonwhite players suggests that lottery games are, in the words of Clotfelter and Cook, “a regressive instrument.” Those who participate do so because they are incentivized by the prospect of winning big, but they may have lost a great deal more than they ever gained from playing.