The lottery is a form of gambling that gives participants a chance to win a large prize based on the drawing of numbers or symbols. Lottery games can be played individually or collectively as a group; they may be organized by state, local government, private corporation, or charity. They usually involve a pool or collection of tickets or their counterfoils from which winners are selected by some mechanical process (often shaking, tossing, or drawing). Computers are increasingly used for this purpose as well. Depending on the nature of the lottery, the prizes may range from cash to goods and services.
Throughout history, lotteries have been used in an enormous variety of ways. They were popular in the Roman Empire, where they were often employed during the Saturnalia celebrations, or for divining God’s will. Later, they became common as a way for kings and other wealthy people to distribute their wealth, or as an alternative to taxation.
Early American lotteries grew out of the need to finance colonial wartime projects. In fact, the Continental Congress used them as a means of raising money for the war, and Alexander Hamilton understood their essence when he argued that “everybody will be willing to hazard trifling sums for the chance of considerable gain.”
With its focus on large winnings, the lottery has had many critics. For some, it is an example of crony capitalism; others worry about its effect on poorer citizens and its potential to foster compulsive behaviors. Yet, in a fiscally desperate era when state politicians were desperately seeking revenue sources that would not provoke an anti-tax revolt from their constituents, lotteries offered the promise of easy profits.
When New Hampshire introduced its modern-day lottery in 1964, other states followed suit. While a few politicians were aghast at the idea of raising taxes, most saw the lottery as “budgetary miracles,” Cohen writes, a chance to bring in hundreds of millions without incurring the political costs associated with higher sales or income taxes.
As the reliance on lotteries grew, however, the public’s view of them changed. The criticisms shifted from the basic desirability of a lottery to specific features of its operations, such as the tendency for people in their twenties and thirties to play more frequently than those in their forties, fifties and sixties; the fact that men tend to play more than women; and the regressive impact of lotteries on lower-income groups.
Because the lottery is a business, its advertising necessarily focuses on persuading target groups to purchase tickets and participate in the drawing. The regressive and potentially addictive aspects of these promotional activities become more obvious with each passing year. And, as more and more states rely on revenue from the lottery, the question arises whether it is appropriate for governments at any level to promote an activity they profit from.