A game in which people buy numbered tickets and some are chosen to win a prize. Lottery prizes are generally cash but can also be goods and services. A lottery is a form of gambling but must be run so that each ticket has an equal chance of winning. It is a way to distribute things, such as scholarships or college admissions, that cannot be awarded by ordinary means.
Historically, a lottery relied on chance rather than skill. Its early forms often involved drawing lots to decide issues of state, and in the seventeenth century it helped finance British settlement in America despite Protestant prohibitions against gambling. Lotteries also became tangled up with the slave trade, and George Washington once managed a Virginia lottery whose prizes included human beings. Denmark Vesey, who won the South Carolina lottery and went on to foment a slave rebellion, used his winnings to purchase his freedom.
In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, states used lotteries to raise money for a variety of public projects. They were especially popular in the Northeast, where voters had long been wary of paying taxes and resented government interference. Lotteries provided a legitimate alternative to taxes, and Alexander Hamilton grasped what would become a fundamental truth about them: “Everybody… will be willing to hazard trifling sums for the hope of considerable gain.”
Lotteries are now more common than ever. In fact, Americans spend more than $80 billion on them every year — that’s over $600 per household. That’s a big chunk of their disposable income, and it’s not helping them build an emergency fund or pay down debt. This is a huge waste of money. Instead, we should use this money to invest in our own community and improve our economic prospects.
The earliest record of a lottery dates from 205 and 187 BC in China, when it was called “the drawing of wood” or keno. The word itself is probably borrowed from Middle Dutch loterie, or a calque on Middle French loterie. In modern usage, it can refer to a game in which numbers are drawn to determine winners, but more commonly to an arrangement that depends on chance, as in the distribution of state funds or the allocation of prizes.
When legalization advocates could no longer rely on the argument that a lottery would float most of a state’s budget, they started arguing that it would cover one line item, invariably a government service that was both popular and nonpartisan – education, elder care, or public parks, for instance. This gave the policy a moral veneer and, by extension, a political one. The result, Cohen writes, was a blizzard of state-run lotteries.