The History of Lottery

Lottery is the practice of giving away money or goods by drawing lots. The word comes from the Dutch noun lot meaning “fate” or “choice.” Lotteries are popular and widespread in many countries, including the United States. They are a major source of income for state governments and can be used to raise funds for a wide variety of purposes. In the United States, lottery games include instant-win scratch-off games, daily games and a number-based game called Lotto. The latter is the most popular form of lottery in the country, with players paying $1 to enter a group of numbers that are randomly spit out by machines and then winning prizes if they match the numbers drawn.

The casting of lots has a long history, and is well documented in the Bible as well as ancient Roman records. The emperors Nero and Augustus frequently used it to give away property, slaves and other riches, and it was also a popular dinner entertainment at the Saturnalian feasts of ancient Rome.

Despite the inextricable link between gambling and luck, there are still some people who insist that the odds of winning the lottery are too high to justify the purchase of a ticket. This rationalization rests on the assumption that a lottery’s primary function is to make money and that it is therefore an inherently risky activity. However, these same people tend to overlook a crucial factor: the value of entertainment. When the utility of a prize is high enough, it can outweigh the disutility of a monetary loss.

In Cohen’s story, the villagers rely on their blind acceptance of this lottery to sustain an institution that allows them to persecute one of their own. They do so without any regard for the victim’s merits or fault, and even the children participate in the process. This is the real problem with state-sponsored gambling, he suggests: instead of balancing budgets by raising taxes or cutting services, it creates an unsustainable dependency on luck.

While Cohen focuses on the early history of lottery, his main point is about its modern incarnation, which started around the nineteen-sixties when growing awareness of all the money to be made in gambling collided with a crisis in state funding. The resulting stalemate meant that states could no longer balance their budgets without either raising taxes or cutting services, which were deeply unpopular with voters. Hence the birth of the state-sponsored lottery, which was sold as a painless alternative to both options. Lotteries were now a way to fund everything from education to elder care, public parks and aid for veterans. This rebranding allowed legalization advocates to argue that a vote for the lottery was not a vote for gambling, but rather a vote for this or that line item in a state’s budget. The strategy worked. It was only a matter of time before the lottery became a national institution.