The History of the Lottery


The lottery is a game of chance in which numbers are drawn at random for the chance to win a prize. Some governments outlaw it, while others endorse it to the extent of organizing a national or state lottery. Its history goes back a long way, with the casting of lots for everything from slaves to property to church lands appearing in both ancient Rome and the Bible. But a lottery must have some core elements to work, and the most important one is a mechanism for collecting and pooling all stakes. This is normally done through a hierarchy of sales agents who pass the money paid for tickets up to an organization until it is “banked.” A percentage of this pool usually goes toward costs and profits, leaving a smaller amount available for winners.

The short story The Lottery by Shirley Jackson reflects on the evil nature of human beings and the way people blindly follow outdated traditions. In the story, most of the villagers in the town accept the lottery, even though they are aware that it is not fair. They are willing to sacrifice someone because that is what they have always done in the past. The story also criticizes democracy, showing that the majority can be wrong.

During the early American colonies, the use of lotteries was common despite strict Protestant proscriptions against gambling. Some of the first colonial buildings, including churches and colleges, were built with proceeds from lotteries. In the modern era, states have used lotteries to generate revenue to fund services that they would otherwise have to raise taxes for, such as education and road maintenance. Lottery profits have helped many states avoid the pitfalls of deficits and debt.

In the twentieth century, states with low income tax rates and little appetite for raising them were able to turn to the lottery as a budgetary miracle. Cohen explains that legislators were able to convince voters that the lottery was a painless way to finance spending without raising taxes. The result has been a huge growth in state-sponsored gambling, and a national culture of addiction to chance.

Although the casting of lots to make decisions and determine fates has a long record in human history (Nero was a fan of lotteries), the modern concept of a lottery to distribute prize money dates only to 1466 in Bruges, Belgium. Since then, it has become one of the most popular forms of gambling worldwide.

Lottery games are designed to keep players hooked, and there is evidence that the psychology of addiction applies just as well to state-sponsored gambling as it does to tobacco or video-games. For example, the fronts of lottery tickets and the math behind the odds are carefully designed to make winning appear unlikely enough to be enticing but not impossible. Moreover, the more often the lottery is played, the more likely people are to feel they have a good chance of winning.