A lottery is a procedure for distributing money or prizes, including free land or slaves, among a group of people by chance. It may be a form of gambling where tickets are sold for the chance to win a prize, or it may be a method of apportioning property (such as inheritance or divorce) or other items of value. Lottery has a long history and is often used for charitable purposes. The term is probably derived from the Middle Dutch word loterie, which in turn is a calque of Old French loterie, “action of drawing lots.”
The first modern state-sponsored lotteries were organized in Europe in the fourteenth century. They were intended to raise funds for town fortifications and to help the poor, and they spread to England shortly thereafter. In 1567, Queen Elizabeth I chartered the nation’s first lottery and proclaimed its profits to be “for reparation of the Havens and strength of the Realme.”
Today, lottery is an ubiquitous form of entertainment. It is played by more than half of all Americans, and its players are disproportionately lower-income, less educated, nonwhite, and male. They buy tickets at a variety of outlets, from discount stores to gas stations to check-cashing centers and even while buying Snickers bars at a Dollar General. They play the big games like Powerball and Mega Millions, and they also play the smaller ones, such as scratch-off tickets. They have all sorts of quote-unquote systems for picking winners, and they believe a lot in the American dream, that hard work and education will eventually lead to prosperity.
Lottery promoters use a range of strategies, from the way they advertise to the math on the front of the ticket, to keep the players coming back for more. These techniques are not so different from those that tobacco companies and video-game makers employ. But the fact that lottery is a government-sanctioned form of addiction gives it a legitimacy that other forms of addiction do not have.
The appeal of the lottery is rooted in human nature and extends well beyond the money that can be won. It is an extension of our desire to be rewarded for our efforts, and it combines with a meritocratic belief that we are all destined to become rich someday.
In the late twentieth century, Cohen writes, as America became increasingly polarized and aversion to taxation increased, a new argument emerged in favor of state-sponsored lotteries: that since gamblers would continue to do so regardless of whether governments legalized it or not, they might as well profit from their actions, too. It was a flawed argument, but it gave moral cover to those who approved the introduction of lotteries and other state-sponsored gambling.