What is a Lottery?


A lottery is a game in which numbers are drawn to determine a prize. The practice of making decisions or determining fates by lot is ancient (the Bible offers several examples), but public lottery games are much more recent, with the first recorded one held in 1466 in Bruges, Belgium, to distribute property and slaves during Saturnalian feasts. Lotteries have broad appeal because they can provide entertainment and other non-monetary benefits to a great many people at low cost. If the expected utility of such benefits is higher than the disutility of a monetary loss, the purchase of a ticket can represent a rational choice for an individual.

State lotteries typically follow a similar path: a government legislates a monopoly for itself; establishes a public agency or corporation to run the lottery; begins operations with a modest number of relatively simple games; and, driven by constant pressure for additional revenues, progressively expands the number and complexity of games. As the expansion continues, it is easy for state officials to lose sight of the original goals that motivated the establishment of the lottery in the first place.

In the short term, the popularity of a lottery tends to rise and fall in tandem with the general economic conditions of the state. But once the lottery is established, debate and criticism shifts away from its overall desirability to specific features of its operation and management. In particular, there are concerns that lotteries may distort state budgeting by encouraging the reliance on such a source of revenue; concern that the lottery undermines social norms against gambling; and the issue of how proceeds are spent.