What is a Lottery?


A lottery is an arrangement of prizes by chance. It can be a gambling game or it can be used to give away property or money. The casting of lots for decisions or to determine fates has a long history in human affairs; it is mentioned several times in the Bible and is the basis for the practice of allocating military conscription, giving slaves away by lottery in Rome, and distributing municipal taxes on property. Modern lotteries are a popular way to raise money for a wide variety of public and private projects, including sports teams and medical research. They are also a form of taxation, though they are deemed “voluntary” by the people who play them.

The earliest recorded public lotteries to sell tickets offering prize money were held in the Low Countries in the 15th century, where they raised funds for town fortifications and the poor. The name “lottery” may derive from the Dutch word for fate (lot) or from Old French loterie, which refers to a drawing of lots in general or, as Webster’s New World College Dictionary notes, “the action of arranging by lot.”

In America, lottery plays date back at least to the colonial era, when they were common and played for a variety of purposes. They were popular as means of raising a “voluntary” tax, and helped finance paving streets, building wharves, and the construction of buildings at Harvard and Yale. George Washington even sponsored a lottery to help pay for his military campaigns, although that effort was unsuccessful.

A number of moral arguments are commonly made against state-sponsored lotteries. One is that they are a form of regressive taxation, as the proceeds are disproportionately paid by those at the bottom of the income scale. Another is that lotteries rely on the illusory hope of instant riches, which preys on the lower class and undermines social mobility. Both of these arguments are based on the assumption that people make rational decisions when making lottery purchases, but studies show that this is not necessarily the case.

Lottery commissions have tried to defuse these objections by arguing that the money raised is specifically for a public good and that people should feel a sense of civic duty to participate. These arguments are often more effective in periods of economic stress, when the threat of raising taxes or cutting public programs is real. However, a study by Clotfelter and Cook shows that the popularity of lotteries is not related to the objective fiscal health of a state.