Lottery is the distribution of something, as of property or prizes, by chance. The practice dates back a long way; it is recorded in the Old Testament and other ancient sources, and Roman emperors gave away slaves and property by lot. Its popularity in recent times has been remarkable. Lotteries have won wide public approval and, except for a few cases in which they have failed to attract sufficient support, have been adopted by almost all states.
Lotteries have the advantage of concentrating on specific, measurable objectives that are easy for the public to understand and relate to. By contrast, many state programs, even when well conceived, are difficult to communicate to the public. The popularity of lottery games has also been largely independent of the actual fiscal condition of states. Historically, when state legislatures have considered introducing lotteries, they have been able to secure the public’s support by stressing that proceeds from the lottery will benefit education or some other specific public good.
The earliest public lotteries for money prizes were held in the Low Countries during the 15th century, with town records in Ghent, Utrecht and Bruges showing that they had been used as early as 1445. The word is thought to have been derived from Middle Dutch loterij or Loterie, which probably is a calque on the French phrase loterie (“action of drawing lots”), itself a calque on German lotterei (literally, “lot-taking”). Despite the wide appeal of lotteries, critics point out that they have many harmful effects. These include promoting compulsive gambling, undermining self-control and moral integrity, and regressively affecting lower-income groups.