A lottery is a game in which players purchase tickets for a chance to win money or goods. In modern times, a lottery is often run by a state government to raise money for various public purposes, but the concept dates back many centuries. The Old Testament records that the Lord instructed Moses to conduct a census and divide land by lot, while Roman emperors used lotteries to give away slaves and property during Saturnalian feasts. The lottery was introduced to the United States by British colonists, but initial reactions were largely negative; ten states banned it from 1844 to 1859. Lottery opponents objected that the proceeds were not tax revenue, but rather a form of gambling, and thus the lottery violated moral and religious proscriptions against gambling. However, by the late twentieth century, a growing tax revolt made a lottery seem like an ideal way for states to spend money without increasing taxes.
State lottery proponents promoted their cause by claiming that the profits would cover only one line item, usually education but sometimes other government services, such as elder care or parks. This strategy proved effective in winning voter approval for the lottery, particularly when state governments faced pressure to increase taxes or cut public programs. As the popularity of the lottery rose, advocates became more sophisticated in their arguments, arguing that people were going to gamble anyway, so it made sense for the government to allow them to do so while reaping the profits. This argument was effective, and it dissipated the objection that gambling was immoral, but it had limits.
The lottery has long been a source of popular entertainment, and it has a certain psychological appeal. Even though the odds of winning are extremely low, people are willing to buy tickets for a few dollars each, believing that if they are lucky enough, they will win the jackpot and be rich. This belief is bolstered by the fact that so many people play, which creates the illusion that someone will indeed win.
While the lottery is a form of gambling, its popularity in the United States is rooted not just in people’s desire to become wealthy, but also in the desire to make sense of an increasingly complicated world. The lottery provides a simple, comprehensible explanation of how things work, and a reassuring way to make sense of the inexorable flow of time.
While there is certainly an element of chance in the winning of lottery prizes, most winners are determined by a combination of skill and luck. A small percentage of people have a gift for gambling, which is why the lottery can be so addictive. For the rest of us, the lottery is a great reminder that there is still a lot that we can control, and a little bit of luck never hurts. For the winner, it may even be enough to make up for all those lost lottery tickets. – This article is based on an original piece in the June 14, 2011 issue of The New Yorker.