The Evolution of the Lottery

The lottery is a form of gambling in which participants pay a small sum of money for a chance to win a larger prize. The prize may be any item of value, including money, property, services, or merchandise. Lotteries have a long history, although the casting of lots for decisions or fates has been largely replaced by modern means such as the use of electoral rolls and commercial promotions in which property is given away. The first recorded public lottery was held in Rome under the emperor Augustus, for municipal repairs. Later, in the Low Countries, public lotteries distributed prizes of various kinds, ranging from food to fine dinnerware.

Today, state governments regulate the operation of a number of different types of lotteries. Many have a single game, such as a Powerball or Mega Millions, but others have a variety of games. Some have even created special “instant games,” where the winner is determined by the drawing of numbers. These are often cheaper to play and have higher odds than other games.

The state typically legislates a monopoly for itself; establishes a publicly run agency to manage the lottery; begins operations with a modest number of relatively simple games; and then, due to a constant pressure to generate revenues, progressively expands the scope of its offerings by adding new games and expanding the advertising campaign that promotes them. This accelerated evolution of the lottery has produced a series of questions. Does it exacerbate the alleged negative consequences of gambling (targeting poorer individuals, exposing problem gamblers to addictive games, etc.)? And is it a suitable function for government to perform?