What is a Lottery?


A lottery is a game of chance in which tokens are drawn at random to determine the winner. The word probably comes from Old Dutch lotterie, from the Middle French loterie (“action of drawing lots”) and a calque on Middle English lotinge “action of drawing lots” (the Oxford English Dictionary). The earliest state-sponsored lotteries may have been in the Low Countries in the fifteenth century to raise funds for town fortifications and to help the poor. A bettor usually writes his name and the amount of money staked on a paper ticket that is deposited with the lottery organization for shuffling and selection in the drawing. The winners are then announced and the prize money awarded.

In the immediate post-World War II period, states desperate to maintain services without hiking taxes turned to the lottery as a way of bringing in billions. Cohen writes that supporters of state-run gambling dismissed ethical objections by arguing that if people were going to gamble anyway, government might as well reap the profits. These politicians, he says, were not looking to win votes in the cities but to create budgetary miracles that would keep state coffers flush with cash while allowing them to avoid raising sales and income taxes.

Besides the inextricable human urge to gamble, there are more sinister implications of lotteries. For one, they dangle the promise of instant riches in an age of growing inequality and limited social mobility. They also encourage a meritocratic belief that everyone should be able to get rich if they just try hard enough.