The History of the Lottery

In a time of growing inequality and limited social mobility, lotteries are dangling the prospect of instant riches for a small price. Those who play are not doing so simply out of an inextricable human impulse, though that certainly plays a role. It’s also because the lottery is run as a business, with a clear mandate to maximize revenues. And that means the marketing messages used must necessarily be geared toward persuading people to spend their money on tickets.

This is why you see billboards that gush about mega-sized jackpots – the message being that, yes, you can win big if you buy a ticket. But that’s a lie, too. The truth is that lottery jackpots are intentionally inflated to boost sales and public interest. Super-sized jackpots not only attract the attention of people who might otherwise not be interested in a lottery, but they also create an appearance of newsworthiness, making it more likely that the news media will cover the story.

The first state-run lotteries were probably established in the 15th century, and records of them appear in town records of cities such as Ghent, Bruges, and Utrecht. Privately organized lotteries, however, existed much earlier. For example, a lottery was used to raise funds to pay for the settlement of the Virginia colony in 1612. The idea of a national or state-sponsored lotteries emerged during the American Revolution and was brought to America in 1776, when George Washington sponsored a proposal to use it as a “voluntary tax.”

Once established, many states have followed similar paths: legislate a monopoly; establish a state agency or public corporation to run the lottery (as opposed to licensing a private company for a fee); begin operations with a modest number of relatively simple games; and, due to continuous pressure for additional revenues, progressively expand the game, adding new games and reducing ticket prices. This evolution of the lottery is a classic example of public policy being made piecemeal and incrementally, with little broader overview or control.

The bottom line is that state-run lotteries are a form of gambling. But even if they were not, it would be hard to justify the promotion of gambling as a legitimate state function. It’s at best a poor substitute for taxes and is at worst working at cross-purposes with the general public welfare. State governments should be focused on supporting the well-being of their citizens, not promoting gambling. This is why the growth of state-run lotteries deserves serious scrutiny. And it’s why we should support efforts to ban these regressive, predatory practices.