The History of the Lottery


Lottery, from the Latin lucere (“to chance”), is an arrangement in which people’s names are drawn by lot to determine who will receive prizes. The word is probably related to Middle Dutch loterie, a diminutive of Old Dutch loetrije “to draw lots,” or to Greek (“lotos,” “fate”) and Old French loterie.

The oldest surviving lottery was organized by Roman Emperor Augustus to raise funds for city repairs. It consisted of a series of drawings during dinner parties, and prizes typically were fancy items that all ticket holders could take home. Lotteries of this kind grew popular in England and America in the early 1800s as a way to sell products or properties for more money than would be possible through ordinary sales.

State governments have a long history of using lotteries to raise money for various public purposes. At the outset of the Revolutionary War the Continental Congress adopted a scheme for public lotteries to help support the Colonial Army. Alexander Hamilton wrote that people “will always be willing to hazard trifling sums for the hope of considerable gain.” Often, public lotteries were used as a substitute for more onerous taxes.

By the 1960s, state officials were promoting lotteries as a means of funding everything from welfare to higher education. This argument was based on the belief that states needed more revenue and that taxes on working families and the middle class were unsustainable. Unlike many other tax policies, which were contested in the legislature and opposed by voters, lotteries won broad public approval. This was especially true during periods of economic stress, when the prospect of tax increases and cuts in services made many Americans eager to support the lottery.

In addition to providing an alternative source of revenue, lotteries were viewed as a way to reduce the size of state government and avoid excessive spending. This view was particularly attractive in Northeastern states with larger social safety nets and the perception that they were under fiscal stress. Nonetheless, studies have shown that lotteries have won general approval even in states with healthy budgets.

The success of the lottery is largely a result of its ability to dangle the promise of instant riches. In a society of inequality and limited social mobility, people are often drawn to the temptation of coveting money and the things that it can buy. The Bible forbids covetousness (Exodus 20:17). Unfortunately, the prosperity lottery promises is not as widespread as it may seem. For example, most lottery players are disproportionately low-income, less educated, and nonwhite. They also tend to play more frequently. This pattern has led some to argue that the lottery is a form of discrimination. Others have argued that it is simply an extension of the inextricable human tendency to gamble. The latter argument is problematic because it obscures the fact that most lottery players are gambling on something they can’t control. Moreover, it obscures the fact that the lottery is a form of discrimination against certain groups of people.