Life is a Lottery

A scheme for distributing prizes by chance. Generally, people buy tickets, which have numbers on them, and winners are selected by drawing. Also, any event whose outcome seems to be determined by chance: “Life is a lottery.”

Making decisions and determining fates by casting lots has a long history (and several examples in the Bible). But the lottery is only about 300 years old. The earliest state lottery was organized by Augustus Caesar to raise funds for repairs in Rome, and the first lottery to distribute prize money was held in 1466 in Bruges, Belgium, for the announced purpose of aiding the poor.

Modern state lotteries were introduced in the 1960s, in states with larger social safety nets that maybe needed a little extra revenue. The states set up a monopoly for themselves, creating a government agency or public corporation to run the lottery (rather than licensing a private firm in return for a cut of the profits); began operations with a modest number of relatively simple games; and, under pressure from continuous demands for additional revenues, progressively expanded their offerings.

This expansion has generated a second set of issues. Lottery advertising is necessarily aimed at persuading people to spend their money on gambling, and there are inevitably some problems: bad publicity, problem gamblers, etc. But there are also important moral and social concerns. Lotteries dangle the promise of instant riches in a world that offers only limited chances for upward mobility, and they exploit people’s natural desire to gamble.