Lottery is a form of gambling in which people purchase tickets to win a prize, such as cash or goods. The winners are determined by a random drawing of numbers. This type of gambling is often organized by governments to raise funds for public works or other purposes. Lottery tickets are sold in many countries around the world. The first recorded lotteries were held in the Low Countries in the 15th century to raise money for town fortifications and to help the poor. They were later popularized by King Francis I of France, who financed his campaigns in Italy with lotteries. The French lottery was abolished just before the start of World War II, but a new one was introduced after the war.
In the nineteenth century, state-run lotteries became common in America. They were promoted, Cohen writes, “not by moral convictions against gambling, but by the state’s urgent need for revenue.” Early America was short of taxes, and its voters were defined politically by a hostility to taxation. Universities and towns were built, for example, with money from lotteries, and the Continental Congress tried to use one to help fund the Revolutionary War.
Although the purchase of a lottery ticket cannot be accounted for by decision models that rely on expected value maximization, it can be explained by more general models of risk-seeking behavior. Moreover, the ticket might provide entertainment and other non-monetary benefits for its purchaser, and these might outweigh the disutility of the monetary loss that results from playing the lottery.
Nonetheless, it is hard to imagine a rational person who does not consider the odds of winning when buying a lottery ticket. Indeed, some people are utterly obsessed with lotteries and make irrational decisions to buy as many tickets as they can, even going into debt in order to do so. They also obsess about lucky numbers and certain stores and times of day to buy tickets. And they can easily be manipulated by lottery companies with clever marketing strategies that prey on the fear of missing out on a big prize.
The modern lottery grew out of this era of fiscal crisis, with states desperate to finance their growing array of services without incurring the wrath of an increasingly anti-tax electorate. In the nineteen-sixties, inflation and the cost of the Vietnam War brought an end to the prosperity that had allowed states to expand their social safety net without much pain for middle-class and working-class voters.
States that had long been repelled by the idea of gambling were finally convinced they could get away with it, as long as they promoted it with the right slogans and avoided “gambling’s evil twin, prostitution.” But it’s not clear that lottery proceeds are doing that much to improve the quality of state services. And it’s hard to see why government should be in the business of promoting vice, no matter how well it pays for itself. After all, those who wish to gamble have plenty of other options, from casinos and sports betting to horse races and financial markets.