The History of the Lottery

The casting of lots to make decisions and determine fates has a long history in human society. It is also a common form of gambling. During the early seventeenth century, it was a popular pastime in the Netherlands where lotteries raised funds for a variety of public purposes and were viewed as a painless alternative to taxation. Lotteries spread to England, where they were tolerated despite Protestant prohibitions against dice and playing cards.

By the nineteen sixties, Cohen writes, growing awareness of the money to be made in lottery games collided with a crisis in state funding. With population and inflation soaring, states were finding it harder to balance their budgets without either raising taxes or cutting services, options that would be punished at the polls. For politicians facing this dilemma, lotteries appeared to be budget miracles—the chance for governments to generate new revenue seemingly out of thin air.

A typical lottery involves selling tickets for a drawing at some future date; the winners are awarded prizes based on the number of numbers or symbols that match those randomly spit out by machines. Historically, the proceeds of a lottery have been used for educational, cultural, and charitable purposes. Today, though, the majority of revenue is generated by a lottery’s game offerings. Revenues typically expand rapidly after a lottery’s introduction, but they eventually plateau and sometimes decline. This “boredom” factor has prompted the constant introduction of new games to maintain and even increase revenues.