The History of the Lottery

The earliest lotteries date to the Low Countries in the 15th century, where town records from Ghent, Utrecht, and Bruges indicate that prizes were awarded for wall construction and charity. Later, governments embraced them as a painless way to raise money, arguing that citizens were voluntarily spending their own money — in the name of public good — without the sting of being taxed.

Nowadays, 44 states and the District of Columbia run lotteries. The six states that don’t (and where you can’t play Powerball and Mega Millions) cite a range of reasons, including religious concerns, the desire to avoid a competitor that might cut into profits, and fiscal urgency (though Alaska, Hawaii, Mississippi, Utah, and Nevada already allow gambling).

Despite the varying motivations, state introductions of lottery followed strikingly similar patterns: the legislature legislated a monopoly for itself; established an agency or public corporation to run the lottery rather than licensing a private firm in return for a cut of profits; began operations with a modest number of relatively simple games; and then progressively expanded the lottery in size, complexity, and the variety of available games.

But while lotteries may have increased government revenues, they’re also widely considered to be a major regressive tax on lower-income people and a dangerous gateway drug that promotes addictive gambling behavior and other abuses. Moreover, they’re criticized for encouraging “irrational hope,” a particularly toxic form of hopelessness in an era of inequality and limited social mobility.