A lottery is a gambling game in which participants pay a small amount of money (usually a fixed price per ticket) for the chance to win a prize. The prizes are normally cash or goods. In some cases, the winner can also choose to receive services rather than cash. The lottery is a popular form of raising funds for various purposes. It is particularly effective when something is in high demand but in limited supply. Examples include kindergarten admission at a reputable school or units in a subsidized housing block. It is also used to select recipients of a vaccine for a rapidly spreading disease.
Lotteries are often criticized for being unfair, but in fact they have been an essential tool for financing both private and public projects for centuries. In early colonial America, they played a huge role in funding the construction of roads, libraries, churches, colleges and canals. During the French and Indian War, the Continental Congress held a series of lotteries to raise money for the Colonial Army. The first private lottery in the United States was established in 1740, and it helped finance Columbia and Princeton universities.
In his new book, The Lottery: How the Games We Play Shape Our Lives, the historian David Cohen traces the rise of the modern American lottery. It began, he writes, when growing awareness of all the money to be made in the gambling business collided with a crisis in state funding. In the nineteen-sixties, a swelling population and high inflation threatened to overwhelm state coffers. Balancing budgets required either raising taxes or cutting services, both of which were unpopular with voters.
To get around this problem, many states turned to lotteries. The appeal was obvious: It was easy to organize, cheap to operate, and popular with the public. In addition, it allowed politicians to avoid the politically sensitive issue of taxation. The result was a massive growth in the number of lotteries, from privately run games in England and the United States to state-run lotteries that played an important role in funding everything from roads and bridges to public schools and hospitals.
As the odds of winning became ever worse, people continued to buy tickets. This was largely because the chances of winning weren’t the only thing that mattered. People bought lottery tickets, not just for the money they might win, but for a couple of hours, or days, to dream about the possibilities that a big jackpot would bring.
The result is that, today, lottery revenue accounts for about one-fifth of all state and local government spending. But despite this success, the underlying philosophy that drives it is deeply flawed. The true reason that lottery games are so irresistible is that they provide a glimpse of the impossible. They are a reminder that, however irrational and mathematically impossible it may seem, luck really does exist. And that, in the end, is what lottery players are really buying.