The History of the Lottery


The term “lottery” comes from the Dutch noun lot, meaning “fate.” In its modern sense, it refers to an arrangement in which a number of prizes are awarded by chance. It is a classic form of gambling, and its popularity has increased dramatically in the United States over the past half-century. It has also become a source of state revenue, and has spawned similar arrangements in many other countries. The lottery is a perfect example of how governments make policy in piecemeal, incremental ways that do not necessarily take into account the overall implications of their actions. In this case, officials seized upon the possibility of an enormous windfall and created a new industry that, once established, tends to evolve without much regard for overall public welfare.

When the lottery first appeared in state legislatures, it was hailed by those who advocated its introduction as a way for states to expand their social safety nets without imposing excessive taxes on middle-class and working-class taxpayers. In the immediate postwar period, when inflation was soaring and the cost of the Vietnam War arose, state budgets were stretched to their limit. Many governments looked for ways to increase their revenues without alienating the voters who supported them. The lottery seemed an ideal solution, and it was a big hit.

Since the early fourteen-hundreds, people have been trying to improve their chances of winning by drawing lots. The earliest state-sponsored lotteries were in the Low Countries, where towns held them to raise money for town fortifications and charity. In the fifteenth century, they spread to England, where Queen Elizabeth I chartered the nation’s first lottery with the purpose of reimbursing troops and strengthening the kingdom. Each ticket cost ten shillings, which was a significant sum in those days. A prize of a small amount of money was enticing, but the main draw was the chance to avoid arrest for crimes like piracy or murder. Lotteries were, and still are, a popular means to escape punishment for a host of misdemeanors.

In his story “The Lottery,” William Faulkner describes a village in which an individual is selected by lot to be killed. All of the villagers participate, including members of the victim’s family and friends. The victim is guilty of no transgression; she just happens to draw the wrong slip from a box. It is a chilling tale, but it illustrates how the psychology of chance can be used to justify almost any behavior.

Lottery commissions know the psychology of addiction, and they are not above availing themselves of it to keep players hooked. They use a variety of tricks, from the design of the tickets to the math behind them, designed to keep people buying more and more tickets, even as their incomes stagnate or decline. This is not unlike the strategies of drug companies or video-game makers.

It is no accident that the rapid growth of the lottery in America took place at a time when the national dream of unimaginable wealth was fading. During those decades, the gap between rich and poor widened, job security declined, health-care costs rose, and pensions dwindled. Consequently, life began to imitate the lottery, and many Americans came to realize that they never stood a chance of a good win.