The History of the Lottery

The casting of lots to determine fates and distribute wealth has a long record in human history. Lotteries are now common, with participants betting a small sum of money for the chance of winning a large prize. Some lotteries are run as a form of gambling, while others raise funds for a variety of public usages. Historically, lottery winners have included the poor and even famous people such as Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson.

The word lottery is derived from the Dutch noun lot meaning “fate” (or literally, “fate-drawing”). Until recently, governments in many countries outlawed lotteries or did not regulate them at all, while others endorse and organize state or national lotteries. The American lottery is a case in point, with a remarkably broad and diverse level of public support.

Although the state-run Lottery is a classic example of a piecemeal policy development process with no overall direction or overview, it is widely perceived to be an effective method for financing a variety of government activities without especially onerous taxes on middle- and working-class citizens. The lottery’s success has created a number of problems, however, including the fact that it promotes gambling and is run as a business, with an emphasis on maximizing revenues. As a result, it is not oriented toward the general welfare of the state or its citizens. It is a situation in which state officials find themselves at cross-purposes with the larger community, and it may be a model that other countries might wish to avoid.