Lottery is a wildly popular pastime with an ancient history. It is attested to in the Bible (Nero was a fan), in Roman records of land and slave giveaways, and in Chinese documents from the Han dynasty. The concept is simple: a drawing of lots determines the winner. The most famous examples of the game were keno slips from the 2nd century BC and the Chinese Book of Songs, which mentions “lucky numbers”.
The word lottery comes from Middle Dutch, loterij, meaning the arrangement of lots, and is also the origin of the word gamble. In fact, the first state-sanctioned lotteries were held in the Low Countries in the 15th century. Towns used them to raise money for things like town fortifications and the poor.
In the 1740s, public lotteries helped finance roads, canals, libraries, churches, and colleges in colonial America. The Academy Lottery, for example, raised funds for the University of Pennsylvania in 1755. Privately organized lotteries were also common, especially in England and the colonies. Some of them advertised prizes such as goods, property, and slaves in newspapers.
As the popularity of lotteries grew, advocates sought ways to promote them and legitimize them. They began to argue that they were a way for states to finance important government services without imposing particularly onerous taxes on working people. They also touted the benefits of sports betting, which they claimed was a similar mechanism for raising revenue without raising overall taxation.
Advocates of lotteries promoted the idea that they were good for morality because players feel a sense of civic duty to purchase tickets. They argued that even if the player lost, they would be supporting education or veterans or whatever the state’s most popular service was at the time. This reframed the debate about gambling as something that was both morally and economically acceptable.
Once states began to expand their array of government services, this arrangement grew increasingly untenable. The costs rose, the gap between rich and poor widened, job security and pensions eroded, and our long-standing national promise that hard work and a strong family foundation would guarantee that children would be better off than their parents ceased to be true for many families. The lottery’s reputation as a “tax on the stupid” rose as well.
By the time of the Great Recession, lottery advocates were no longer able to sell the idea that it was a silver bullet for state budgets. Instead, they argued that it would cover a specific line item—often education but sometimes elder care or parks or aid for veterans—and thus be a good alternative to higher taxes. This strategy made it easier for voters to choose to support the lottery, because they knew what their choice was actually about.