The History of the Lottery

Oct 21, 2023 Gambling


A lot of people have a hard time wrapping their heads around the idea that you can win the lottery. But these are the folks that have bought into the quote-unquote systems that are based on totally unfounded statistical reasoning about lucky numbers and stores and what times of day to buy tickets and where to buy them. And for the big games, they have a hard time accepting that their odds are long. They just have to hope for the best.

A winning ticket opens a lot of doors and can drastically change someone’s life. But it is important for winners to keep a clear head when it comes to this money because they can easily get caught up in the euphoria and lose control of their decisions. Moreover, they can also end up putting themselves in danger from people who want to take their money or even their property.

While the early history of the lottery is full of examples of crooked officials, it’s not all bad news. For example, the first state-run lotteries were held in the Low Countries in the 15th century to raise funds for town fortifications and to help the poor. These were not the kind of state-run lotteries that spawned gambling addictions, but they were still an effective way to raise money for public goods.

It is not surprising that these lotteries were popular in an era that was defined politically by its aversion to taxes. And the lottery became a convenient alternative to more onerous levies on the wealthy, which could have financed everything from civil defense to the construction of churches. It also helped to finance Harvard, Yale, and the Continental Congress. But the lottery, like so much else in early America, was tangled up with slavery in unpredictable ways. George Washington managed a lottery in Virginia whose prizes included human beings, and Denmark Vesey won a state lottery and used the prize money to foment a slave rebellion.

Lottery advocates dismissed old-fashioned ethical objections to the practice. They argued that since people were going to gamble anyway, the government might as well profit from it. And it was a compelling argument, especially in an era when the top 1% owned most of the country’s wealth and many working-class voters supported legalized gambling because they wanted to pay for services that would benefit their communities.

Lottery commissions have shifted their marketing strategy away from the notion that lottery play is just another form of gambling. Now they rely on two messages, both of which have to do with leveraging the psychology of addiction. They know that if they can keep people coming back for more, the regressive nature of their business model will become obscured. This is hardly any different from the strategies of tobacco companies or video-game manufacturers. They know what they are doing. It is just a matter of time before we learn the same lesson. Then we might be able to talk about the real problems that lottery addiction causes.

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