The History of the Lottery


A lottery is a procedure for allocating something—usually money or prizes—among a group of people by drawing lots. There are a number of ways to organize a lottery: a financial lottery, in which participants pay for the chance to win a prize, and a charitable or public benefit lotteries, in which the proceeds from ticket sales go to fund projects such as a subsidized housing block or kindergarten placements.

State governments have long favored financial lotteries to raise revenue, and while they may not always be effective at raising funds for important public projects, they are an easy way to generate substantial income for states. In the immediate post-World War II period, when many states were expanding their array of services and increasing taxes on middle class and working class citizens, lotteries enabled them to raise revenue without especially onerous burdens on those groups.

Lotteries are also a popular form of gambling, in which players pay a small amount to have the chance to win a large sum of money. While they have been criticized as addictive forms of gambling, the fact is that the money raised by these games often goes to support worthwhile projects in the public sector.

The word “lottery” comes from the Middle Dutch word lotinge, meaning a distribution of property by lot. The first European lotteries in the modern sense of the term appeared in the 15th century in Flanders and Burgundy, with towns raising funds to fortify defenses or to help poor citizens. Francis I of France encouraged the growth of lotteries in the 1500s, and they soon spread throughout Europe.

While the lottery has become a symbol of bad government, it has been used for centuries to fund all sorts of activities. For example, the Old Testament instructed Moses to divide land among the people by lottery. Later, Roman emperors gave away slaves and property by lottery. And the American colonies adopted lotteries to help fund their Revolutionary War campaigns.

There are two reasons why the lottery has been so popular, according to Dave Gulley, an economist at Bentley University in Waltham, Mass. The first is that governments need money, and they believe that most people are willing to risk a trifling sum for the chance of considerable gain. In other words, they are convinced that a little bit of gambling is inevitable, and if the states can capture that gamblers’ spending, they can raise the money they need for public projects.

But that’s not the whole story, and there are two problems with this belief. One is that, in fact, most lottery players do not spend much at all. The other is that a lot of the money that is actually spent on the lottery is wasted. To understand why, you need to know a little bit about mathematics. To start with, you need to know what a factorial is. A factorial is the number you get when you multiply a given number against all the numbers beneath it, like 3 times 2 times 1. It turns out that, for most lottery numbers, the answer will be between 1 and 50.