The History of the Lottery

The lottery is a huge business, but it’s not usually done under the auspices of government. Rather, it’s something more akin to the strategies of Snickers bars or video-game manufacturers: everything about the lottery—from the design of its tickets and the math behind them, to its ad campaigns and the way in which it is sold—is designed to keep people hooked. And while that’s not a bad thing, it’s also not particularly democratic, either.

Lottery has become the dominant form of public funding in most states, largely because it is a relatively painless alternative to raising taxes. As Cohen explains, state legislators often use lotteries as budgetary miracles, a way to maintain public services without inflaming their anti-tax electorates.

Historically, public lotteries were used to finance everything from town fortifications and charity projects to building universities. The Continental Congress held a lottery to raise funds for the Revolutionary War, and Alexander Hamilton grasped what would prove to be its essential appeal: that most people “will willingly hazard a trifling sum for the hope of considerable gain.”

In England, public lotteries were a common part of life from the 14th century, and by 1667 Queen Elizabeth I chartered the country’s first national lottery, which specified that the profits would help support the Crown and her royal children. The idea eventually spread to America, where private promoters organized a number of public lotteries, and the Boston Mercantile Journal in 1832 reported that 420 had been held that year alone.

By the nineteenth century, it had become fashionable to subsidize everything from churches to prisons through public lotteries. In addition to providing a steady stream of money for the poor, they also provided an opportunity for people to buy their freedom—and the prize for winning a lottery could even include human beings. Despite Protestant proscriptions against gambling, public lotteries flourished throughout the colonial period, and George Washington even managed a lottery to fund his military operations.

The term lottery derives from the Dutch word lot, which means fate. The first governmental lotteries were organized in the Low Countries in the 15th century, with towns raising money for town fortifications or helping the poor through them. In the 17th century, the practice became widespread in England and then made its way to the colonies, where it quickly became popular, despite strict Protestant prohibitions against dice games and cards.

In many of these early lotteries, prizes were cash or goods. By the nineteenth century, however, prizes were almost always a single large amount of money. In some countries—particularly the United States—prizes are awarded in the form of annuity payments or lump-sum payouts. An annuity is paid out over a long period of time, while the lump-sum option gives winners a smaller amount right away.

This makes it easy for the winner to fall into a trap of “mental shopping,” where they spend their winnings on things that do not improve their well-being, and a vicious cycle begins. This cycle, which can last a lifetime, is one of the primary reasons for mass addiction to gambling.