The Lottery As a Government Function


The lottery is a game where people pay to purchase a ticket and then try to win a prize by matching a series of numbers that are drawn at random by a machine. While this is not a legitimate form of gambling, the lottery has become an important source of revenue for many state governments. It is also an important source of entertainment for many people. Although the idea of casting lots for a prize has an ancient history, modern lotteries are typically run as a business with a strong focus on maximizing revenues. This raises a number of issues, including the negative consequences for poor and problem gamblers. It also raises the question of whether this is an appropriate function for a government to perform.

In America, the first public lotteries were a major part of financing both private and public ventures in colonial days. They helped to finance roads, libraries, churches, canals and other projects. In the 1740s, lotteries were used to fund Columbia and Princeton Universities. Benjamin Franklin used a lottery to help fund cannons for the defense of Philadelphia during the American Revolution.

Modern state-sponsored lotteries are modeled after the illegal numbers games that were common in many cities. As they developed into state lotteries, patrons would choose groups of numbers and play frequently, often playing every day. In addition to the large incomes generated for the state, these games also created extensive constituencies of convenience store operators; lottery suppliers (heavy contributions to state political campaigns are regularly reported); teachers and other educators (in states where lottery revenues are earmarked for education); and state legislators, who quickly became accustomed to the lucrative revenues.

Most state lotteries are regulated by law and are overseen by the state’s gaming commission or another similar agency. Despite these safeguards, there are some serious problems with the operation of state lotteries. Most significantly, state governments have come to depend on lottery revenues and are under constant pressure to increase them. In a period of anti-tax sentiment, this is a dangerous development.

Lottery advertising, like that of most other types of gambling, is heavily geared towards persuading target groups to spend their money on the product. This makes it difficult to distinguish between a lottery that is truly based on chance and one that has been designed to manipulate the public’s perception of the probability of winning.

The term “lottery” is derived from the Dutch word lot (“fate”), which is related to the Latin verb lotere (to choose or determine). Its roots can be traced back to the 14th century, when it was a popular way for rulers of the Dutch Republic to allocate land and other privileges. Eventually, it spread to England, where the first official lottery was held in 1569. The word subsequently appeared in English print two years later, and is believed to be a calque on Middle French loterie (“action of drawing lots”). The French version of the lottery was called a flotte or l’élection.