The History of the Lottery

The casting of lots to decide fates has a long history, including several instances in the Bible. But state lotteries, which allow people to win money or other prizes in exchange for a purchase, have only recently become popular. Supporters argue that they make it possible for states to expand their array of social safety net services without onerous taxes. They also claim that the lottery is an alternative to illegal gambling.

But many of these lotteries are a classic example of public policy being shaped piecemeal, with little or no general overview and authority being divided among executive and legislative branches. Consequently, the lottery’s promotion of gambling often runs at cross-purposes with the larger public interest, leading to negative consequences for poor or problem gamblers.

It’s no secret that the odds of winning the lottery are slim to none, but some people still believe that if they play enough it will pay off, that if they buy enough tickets, their luck will change. They talk about picking numbers based on birthdays or other lucky combinations, or buying more than one ticket. But there’s no science to this. Each lottery drawing is an independent event, and no single number or combination has any better or worse chance of being chosen than any other.

Despite their role in the early years of America, when its banking and taxation systems were still evolving, state-run lotteries fell out of favor in the 1800s. Corruption and moral uneasiness were partly to blame, but the rise of bond sales and standardized taxation also played their part. Eventually, only Louisiana kept a state lottery until Congress banned it in 1890.