The History of the Lottery

The lottery is a system of distribution of prizes, typically money, by drawing lots. The practice has a long history, going back at least to the biblical accounts of the casting of lots to decide things such as who will be king or what slaves to sell (and the Bible also mentions lotteries for land and other treasure). In modern times, lottery games have become popular as a means of raising funds for public works projects and in some cases as a way of dispensing scholarships and even prison sentences. In the United States, state-run lotteries have enjoyed broad support since New Hampshire launched the first modern era of them in 1964. They have been a source of much controversy, though. Arguments against them range from the dangers of compulsive gambling to a perceived regressive impact on lower-income communities.

The basic logic of the lottery is simple: Participants pay a fee for a ticket and then select numbers from a range, hoping that some combination will match those drawn by the machine. In exchange for their fee, the winner is given a prize, which may be anything from a free meal to a sports car or a house. The odds of winning are typically very low, however, and most people lose more often than they win.

Originally, lottery tickets were sold in the form of shillings, or ten-penny pieces, which could be used to buy a get-out-of-jail card. They were especially useful for those involved in illegal activities, such as piracy and murder, which were punishable by death or a lengthy jail sentence. The practice grew to encompass many other crimes, too, such as theft, forgery, and bribery.

In the fourteen-hundreds, the idea of using a drawing to distribute prizes gained popularity in England and its colonies, despite Protestant proscriptions against gambling. During the American Revolution, Benjamin Franklin used a lottery to raise money for cannons to defend Philadelphia against British invaders. In the late-twentieth century, as states searched for ways to balance budgets without enraging an anti-tax electorate, lotteries became increasingly common.

Lottery commissions have moved away from their initial claims that it is a good alternative to taxes, but still rely on two messages. One is to emphasize how fun the experience of playing the lottery can be. This is coded to obscure the regressivity of the game and the fact that it entices a lot of people to spend a significant portion of their incomes on tickets.

The other message is a general sense of fairness. The idea is that, as a process, the lottery allows everyone to have a chance at something good—whether it’s a football roster spot or a college scholarship. Despite these appeals, the lottery is a deeply flawed institution that should be abolished. It is a symbol of the way oppressive cultures smother hope and undermine the ability of ordinary people to achieve freedom and dignity. This story is an attempt to make this point.