What is a Lottery?


1. A gambling game or method of raising money in which a large number of tickets are sold and a drawing is held for prizes. 2. A selection made by lot, as in military conscription or the assignment of rooms at a hotel.

3. An activity regarded as having an outcome dependent on fate: “Life’s a lottery.” (As quoted from the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Fifth Edition.)

The word “lottery” has its roots in the Dutch noun lot, meaning fate or chance. Early state-sponsored lotteries were called “loteries” or “loterijkjes,” and they were a popular way to raise money for public projects, including universities, schools, hospitals, and bridges. Privately sponsored lotteries were even more popular.

In the United States, lottery advertising appeared in newspapers as early as the 1760s, with Benjamin Franklin promoting his “Mountain Road Lottery” in 1768 and George Washington’s “Slave Lottery” in 1769. The prizes in these lotteries included land and slaves.

Lotteries became a popular form of government funding for public projects in the immediate post-World War II period, especially in states that had long been underfunded or relied on onerous taxes to fund social safety nets. But there’s a hidden message behind the lottery industry’s marketing: The lottery is not just about a chance to win a big prize, it’s also about a kind of neo-liberal meritocratic belief that we all have an inextricable inner drive for instant wealth and gratification.

To be sure, there are many people who play the lottery for fun and as a pastime. But the majority of players are in a different category: those who have been convinced that the game can change their lives for the better. These people are often irrational gamblers who buy multiple tickets each week, have quote-unquote systems that don’t hold up to statistical reasoning, and follow a rigid routine of purchasing their ticket at the same store and at the same time of day.

These people have been convinced that the monetary gain from winning is so great that the disutility of a small chance of loss is outweighed by the combined utility of monetary and non-monetary gains. But they are playing a dangerous illusion. The regressivity of the lottery is not hidden; it is glaringly apparent to anyone who looks at the national picture, which shows that lower-income and less educated people are disproportionately represented among those who regularly play.