The History of the Lottery


The lottery is a form of gambling in which prizes are awarded by chance. Its most common use is the awarding of state public works contracts, but private lotteries are also used for military conscription, commercial promotions (such as for automobiles or beauty products), and the selection of jurors. State lotteries are generally regarded as legal, and are thus not subject to the prohibitions against illegal gambling set forth in the Federal Wire Act or similar laws.

While many people object to the idea of a government-sponsored lottery, most accept that it can be a useful source of revenue for public purposes, especially when used to fund education. The lottery can be viewed as an alternative to raising taxes or cutting other public programs, both of which are usually accompanied by political turmoil. In this regard, the popularity of lotteries is independent of a state’s objective fiscal circumstances; they have won broad approval even in states with strong economic health.

In the early days of the American colony, lotteries played a key role in the financing of several major projects, such as paving streets and building wharves, and they were often promoted by local officials and merchants. George Washington himself sponsored a lottery in 1768 to finance a road across the Blue Ridge Mountains. Lotteries were so popular that they became a regular part of the colonial economy and continued to be a common source of finance throughout the country’s history.

Most state governments maintain lotteries, and their adoption follows remarkably uniform patterns. The arguments for and against a lottery, the structure of the resulting state lottery, and its operations all reflect these patterns.

Initially, most states adopt lotteries on the basis of the argument that they are a source of “painless” revenue: the lottery encourages players to voluntarily spend their money on tickets for a small chance of winning a large prize. After a lottery is established, however, the focus of debate shifts to concerns about compulsive gamblers and other issues that are more specific to the lottery’s operations. Because a lottery is run as a business with the goal of maximizing revenues, its advertising necessarily emphasizes the possibility of big wins and plays down the risk involved in playing.

Moreover, the structure of lottery rules is such that it is difficult for a lottery to operate in a way that takes account of the general public welfare. This is because public policy in the area of lottery is generally made piecemeal and incrementally, and is therefore vulnerable to shifts in public opinion and market trends. Consequently, most states have a lottery policy that is at cross-purposes with the general public interest.