February 29, 2024


A lottery is a game in which numbers are drawn to determine the winners of a prize. The word lottery was probably borrowed from Middle Dutch loterie, which is a calque on the Old French verb loter (“to draw lots”). Its history as an instrument of public policy is of more recent date, although making decisions and determining fates by casting lots has a long record in human history (see the article on Decision-making by Drawing Lots).

Governments promote a wide variety of vices, from alcohol to sports betting, but few do so with as much frequency or in such broad public exposure as state-sponsored lotteries. The question is whether it makes sense for governments to be in the business of promoting this particular vice, particularly given that the proceeds from lotteries represent only a minor share of state budgets. Legislatures in the overwhelming majority of states have answered that it does not make sense.

Lotteries are popular in part because people enjoy gambling. But the bigger reason has to do with a belief that winning the lottery will change people’s lives for the better. The odds of winning are low, but that doesn’t stop people from spending billions of dollars each year on tickets.

It is also important to remember that, even when winning the lottery, people will often lose more money than they win. Furthermore, playing the lottery can encourage unrealistic expectations and magical thinking, and may contribute to a sense of hopelessness about the prospects for achieving real wealth in a society that is increasingly unequal.