The Controversy of the Lottery

A lottery is a way of raising money for a government, charity, or private enterprise by selling tickets with numbers on them. The numbers are drawn by chance, and people with matching numbers receive prizes. Lotteries are often criticized for the alleged regressive impact they have on lower income groups, and they have become the subject of considerable debate regarding their appropriate role in society. But is this criticism fair? Does the controversy about lottery simply reflect a deeper mischaracterization of its nature and purpose?

Historically, the lottery has been an alternative to levying taxes. Early America, for example, was short on tax revenue and long on public works projects that required funding. The Continental Congress even tried to use a lottery to raise money for the Revolutionary War. Private lotteries also became popular, as did commercial promotions in which a product or property was awarded to a randomly selected person.

The word lottery is believed to have been derived from the Latin verb lotere, meaning “to bet.” The idea of giving away valuable goods by drawing lots dates back at least as far as biblical times, and it was a common feature of Saturnalian feasts in ancient Rome. Roman emperors gave away slaves, as well as land and other treasured possessions, by lottery. It was also a feature of many dinner entertainments during the Chinese Han dynasty, when guests would mark pieces of wood and place them into containers for a drawing at the end of the evening.

Lotteries in the modern sense of the word appeared in Europe in the 15th century, when towns began to hold public lotteries to raise money for town fortifications and aid the poor. Probably the first European public lottery to offer money prizes was the ventura, held from 1476 in the Italian city-state of Modena under the auspices of the ruling house of Este.

In the United States, the lottery gained popularity after England’s settlement of America, with public lotteries being used to fund everything from town fortifications to churches. Privately organized lotteries were also widespread, despite Protestant proscriptions against gambling.

A lottery has a unique appeal because it provides a way to gain money with no monetary risk. A person’s utility from playing the lottery is a function of the expected value of both the monetary and non-monetary benefits, so buying a ticket can be rational if the expected utilities exceed the cost. For this reason, lotteries are especially popular in periods of economic stress when state governments face the prospect of raising taxes or cutting public programs.

Lottery advocates point out that the resulting revenue is used for the benefit of education, health, and other public services. However, there are other ways to raise the same amount of money for these purposes, including taxes, and many people choose not to play the lottery because they feel that they’re paying their “fair share” of the tax burden.