The History of the Lottery

The lottery is a game of chance, but the odds are long, and the regressive impact on poor and problem gamblers is real. Its advertising strategy is based on the assumption that people who play the lottery aren’t serious about gambling and just want to have a little fun, but in fact most players are committed and spend a lot of money to try to win.

The practice of distributing property by lot is as old as human civilization itself, and there is evidence of the first lotteries in the Bible (with Moses being instructed to take a census of Israel and divide up land by lot), and in Roman emperors’ Saturnalian dinner entertainments with their guests participating in a form of the lottery that awarded prizes such as slaves and property. Eventually, British colonists introduced lotteries to the United States where they were initially controversial, with many Christian religious groups opposed and ten states banning them from 1844 to 1859.

Today’s state lotteries are not only well established but also remarkably similar in their operation and structure. The decision to establish one is usually made by the legislative or executive branch of the state, and authority over the lottery is fragmented so that there is no overall governance structure in place; as a result, decisions are made piecemeal and incrementally, and the public welfare is only intermittently taken into account. Moreover, the evolution of lottery operations tends to be driven by market forces that are at cross-purposes with public interests.