The History of the Lottery

Lotteries are a kind of gambling with low stakes and high prizes. They’re also a form of social engineering, designed to distribute government revenue—which people might otherwise spend on luxuries or savings for retirement—to poorer parts of the country. The defenders of state-sponsored gambling argue that because people are going to gamble anyway, the government might as well pocket the profits. This argument has its limits, Cohen argues, but it does provide moral cover for politicians who support the lottery for other reasons.

Cohen traces the history of lottery, which started as an amusement at Roman Saturnalia dinner parties, when tickets were distributed to guests and prizes included fancy dinnerware. Lotteries eventually became a way for the government to raise money for public works projects and, later, for civil defense and the war effort. They also played a large role in early America, where they were often used to fund private and religious institutions, including Harvard, Yale, and Princeton.

All lotteries involve some kind of drawing to determine winners, which may be done by random chance or a process like shaking or tossing. Then a percentage of the pool is used for costs and profit, and the remainder goes to winners. The prize size is also a factor; people are more interested in large prizes than small ones. To maximize their chances, ticket holders can look for “singletons,” a group of digits that appear only once in the lottery pool.