The History of the Lottery

In this time of Instagram fame and Kardashians, the lottery might seem like a modern invention, but it’s actually an old concept. In fact, the game’s roots are older than America itself. Benjamin Franklin held a private lottery in 1776 to raise money for cannons to defend Philadelphia from the British. Benjamin and other colonists also organized a public lottery to fund the Revolutionary War. And a few states even used lotteries as a substitute for high taxes in the immediate post-World War II period, when they needed extra cash to expand their array of services.

Once established, lottery games have broad popular support. In states with lotteries, about 60% of adults say they play at least once a year. Lottery proceeds are earmarked for particular purposes by each state, and many players see participation as a way to support those purposes. The industry is highly regulated, and most states have strict rules about advertising. While making decisions and determining fates by casting lots has a long record in human history, the earliest public lottery was organized by Augustus Caesar to pay for municipal repairs in Rome; and the first recorded lotteries to distribute prize money were conducted in Bruges, Belgium, in 1466.

As the popularity of lottery games has grown, so have concerns about their effects on society, including their potential for causing compulsive gambling and the alleged regressive impact on lower-income groups. But because lotteries are run as businesses that seek to maximize revenue, their marketing necessarily targets those specific populations. The question is whether running a business based on selling chances of winning prizes to the poor and others who might be harmed by gambling is an appropriate function for state government.

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