The History of the Lottery


A lottery is a process that allows people to participate in a game of chance in order to win a prize. These games can be financial, where participants wager a small amount of money for the chance to win a large sum of money, or they can be used in decision making, such as filling vacancies in sports teams among equally competing players, assigning grades at school, or even selecting judges for cases. The results of a lottery are completely random, which allows for a fair process when the choice has to be made by chance.

In the early modern era, lotteries were popular in Europe, and they are attested to in the Bible, from choosing Jesus’ garments to the next king of England. They were also a common feature of carnivals and other party games, and they often had social consequences. The enslaved Denmark Vesey, for instance, purchased his freedom in a South Carolina lottery and went on to foment a slave rebellion.

As a result of the popularity of these games, governments found them to be an effective way to raise money for public projects without resorting to taxes. State legislatures, faced with budget shortfalls in the wake of the Great Recession, looked to lotteries as “budgetary miracles,” explains Cohen, because they allowed them to maintain existing services and avoid enraging an anti-tax electorate. To convince voters that the lottery was a good thing, legalization advocates shifted their tactics. Instead of arguing that the revenue would cover all or nearly all government expenses, they began to argue that it could support one line item, typically a popular, nonpartisan service like education, elder care, or public parks.

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