The History of the Lottery

The lottery is a game of chance where prizes are awarded to the holders of tickets selected at random from an extensive pool. The prizes range from cash to goods or services to vacations. In addition, a percentage of the prize money goes as costs and profits to organizers and sponsors. The remaining pool of potential winnings is then divided into a few large prizes and many smaller prizes (with the proportion of the former rising as ticket sales increase).

Although making decisions or determining fates by drawing lots has an ancient history, lotteries became very popular in the seventeenth century for a variety of public purposes, including raising funds for townships, wars, and colleges. Benjamin Franklin held a lottery to raise funds for cannons during the American Revolution, and Thomas Jefferson was involved in a lottery to alleviate his crushing debts.

In colonial America, state governments began regulating lotteries to promote their own economic interests, and many financed their towns, schools, and public-works projects with them. By the end of the century, most of the states had them, and they were used to raise money for both private and public uses.

Lotteries have proved to be a classic case of the piecemeal way in which policy is made at all levels of government, with the result that the objective fiscal circumstances of a state do not always determine whether or when it adopts a lottery and if so, how big and wide its scope will eventually become. Furthermore, the fact that state officials can claim that they are providing “painless” revenue sources has made them extremely attractive to legislators and other officials, even in the age of antitax zeal.