The History of the Lottery


Throughout history governments have used lotteries to raise funds for various purposes. Many states have a state-run lottery, and many private firms offer national and regional lotteries. In the United States, the lottery is a major source of revenue for public education and other public services. While there are concerns about the social costs of gambling, many citizens continue to participate.

The first step in creating a lottery involves the establishment of a state-run monopoly. This is typically done by legislation enacted in the state’s constitution. Often, the state will create a state agency or public corporation to run the lottery (as opposed to licensing a private firm in return for a share of the profits). Once the monopoly is established, the state begins operations with a modest number of relatively simple games. Over time, however, the lottery will progressively expand in size and complexity, particularly through the addition of new games. This process is a classic example of how public policy, once established, becomes self-perpetuating: once a lottery has been launched, it tends to become a “self-regulating” enterprise.

A central element of all lotteries is the drawing, a procedure that determines the winning numbers or symbols. This drawing may take place in a variety of ways, but the basic procedure is to thoroughly mix the tickets or counterfoils and then extract the winners by chance. Computers have increasingly been used to automate this process.

During colonial America, state-sanctioned lotteries were a significant source of funding for both public and private ventures. A series of public lotteries in the 1740s financed the construction of several American colleges, including Princeton and Columbia. In addition, Benjamin Franklin sponsored a lottery to raise money for cannons to defend Philadelphia during the Revolutionary War.

Privately organized lotteries also were common in the United States as means to sell products or property for more money than could be obtained by regular sales. These private lotteries were sometimes used to recruit military conscripts and, in a less formal way, to select jury members.

While the popularity of lotteries in the United States and abroad has waned since their heyday in the early twentieth century, they still have broad popular support in most states. Despite this widespread approval, some critics believe that the lottery promotes gambling addiction and other forms of excessive risk-taking. Others argue that it is the responsibility of the state to regulate gambling.

Ultimately, the success or failure of a lottery is determined by how well it is managed and promoted. A key issue is the extent to which it competes with other sources of entertainment and recreation, as well as the degree to which the lottery is perceived as a tax on citizens. The resulting competition and taxation issues often generate heated debate. In addition, the expansion of lotteries into new types of games has stimulated concern about their impact on society and society’s values. This is a topic on which the opinions of scholars and the public differ widely.