The History of the Lottery


Lottery has been in the news a lot lately, with many people calling for its ban or at least for stricter regulations on its operations. While the casting of lots has a long history in human society, as it is attested to in the Bible and other ancient texts, lottery-style gambling for material gain is much more recent. The earliest recorded state-sponsored lotteries in Europe, which awarded money prizes, were established in 15th-century Burgundy and Flanders to raise funds to help poor families and fortify cities against the threat of foreign invasion.

During the first two centuries of colonial America, private and public lotteries were an integral part of the financing of both private and public ventures. The foundations of Princeton and Columbia Universities were financed with lotteries, as were the building of roads, libraries, churches, canals, bridges, colleges, and other public projects. Benjamin Franklin even ran a lottery to raise money for cannons to defend Philadelphia against the British attack during the American Revolution.

The earliest modern American lotteries were privately run by individuals, as was the case in the village depicted in Shirley Jackson’s short story, “The Lottery.” While these private lotteries were primarily a form of entertainment and leisure, the public lotteries that emerged after statehood acted as a source of revenue for the new government. State legislatures, facing an anti-tax electorate and a desperate need to fund public services, found it tempting to adopt the lottery as a source of revenue without raising taxes.

In the early days of the lottery, advocates were able to sell it as a magic bullet that would float most states’ budgets without triggering the ire of voters. However, once these figures proved to be largely inflated, legalization advocates shifted tactics and began claiming that the lottery would cover a single line item that was popular and nonpartisan–most often education but also elder care or public parks or aid for veterans. This more narrow argument was a good one because it made it easy to convince voters that voting for the lottery wasn’t a vote against taxes.

While the wealthy do play the lottery (a quarter of a billion dollars in winnings was recently seized by three asset managers from Greenwich, Connecticut), they purchase far fewer tickets than do the poor. According to Bankrate, the rich spend an average of one percent of their annual income on tickets; people who earn less than thirty thousand dollars a year spend thirteen percent.

In addition to their reliance on advertising, lottery commissions are adept at using psychological strategies that keep players hooked. The ad campaigns, the design of the tickets, and the mathematics behind the numbers are all designed to be addictive. This is not a unique feature of the lottery; it is the same strategy employed by tobacco companies and video-game manufacturers. It has been argued that the addictive nature of the lottery is not only an inherent flaw but also a fundamental justification for its existence.