Lottery, as the name suggests, is a game of chance. You choose a series of numbers or symbols from an available range, and you hope that they match some larger number, like the jackpot. Lotteries are a popular form of gambling, and they have been around for centuries. They were common in the Roman Empire—Nero loved to play them—and they are attested to in the Bible, where casting lots is used for everything from determining who gets Jesus’ garments after his crucifixion to dividing land among a people.
The idea is that by paying a small amount to participate, you can reap a large reward. But the odds of winning are very low. As a result, lottery winners rarely see their big paydays. In fact, most end up broke within a few years. Despite this, Americans spend $80 billion on tickets each year.
This isn’t a surprise to economists, who have long studied the phenomenon. The rationality of lottery plays is easy enough to explain: If the entertainment value of the prize outweighs the disutility of the monetary loss, then buying a ticket is an economically sound decision. But when it comes to the huge sums involved, it becomes much more difficult to make sense of the behavior.
The truth is that most of us don’t know how unlikely it is to win the jackpot. This is partly because the odds aren’t always transparent, but it’s also because of a deep-seated, meritocratic belief that we will all be rich someday, and that our hard work and good choices will bring about that day. This is the same mythology that drives people to buy Snickers bars from a check-cashing store or pick up Powerball and Mega Millions tickets while waiting for their car repair to be finished.
Defenders of the lottery argue that the proceeds are used to fund public services and social safety nets. But this argument ignores the way that the lottery is designed to keep people playing: Every aspect of the lottery, from the advertising to the math behind the tickets, is meant to make players feel that they have a better shot at instant riches than other people. It’s a strategy not unlike that of tobacco companies and video games.
In the seventeenth century, colonial America held dozens of public lotteries. They funded schools, canals, roads, and churches. During the American Revolution, the Continental Congress even voted to establish a lottery to finance the war. Private lotteries were also common, and they helped build Harvard, Dartmouth, Yale, King’s College (now Columbia), and many other colleges. By the nineteenth century, state governments began to rely on them to raise money for a variety of projects. These included public buildings, road construction, military fortifications, and even the building of a college in Massachusetts. The lottery was not the only source of public funds in the United States at this time, but it was certainly one of the most popular.