The Origins of the Official Lottery

Uncategorized Aug 27, 2023

Until recently, lottery officials argued that gambling is an inextricable human impulse and that people want to play. Now, they have shifted their message to emphasize the experience of winning and to downplay the game’s regressivity. The new message has a distinctly meritocratic ring to it: Lottery winners are hard workers, and their success is due to their diligence and industriousness. It is a message that resonates in a society with rising inequality and limited social mobility.

As a result, state legislatures in a majority of the nation’s states now endorse and promote the games. These governments are not alone in promoting a vice; many private companies also market themselves as a vehicle for instant riches. Nevertheless, government-sponsored lotteries are unique in the degree to which they promise the possibility of wealth on an unprecedented scale.

The first official lotteries arose in early America, a country that was short on revenue and long on need for public works. The Revolutionary War was financed in part by lotteries, and Harvard, Yale, and Princeton were partly founded with the proceeds of such events.

But as time went on, critics grew more concerned with the ethics of state-sponsored gambling and the amount of money that the states really stood to gain from it. By the late twentieth century, as a growing number of states were casting about for ways to plug budget holes that would not enrage their tax-averse electorates, the lottery began its sweeping expansion across the nation.