What Is a Lottery?


A lottery is a game of chance in which a prize, usually money, is awarded to a random person or group. The word is derived from the Latin for “fate or lot”. Although casting lots to determine fate and possession of property has a long record in human history (including several instances in the Bible), the modern state-run lottery emerged during the 17th century in Europe as a popular way to raise funds for public expenditures. It was hailed as a painless form of taxation, with the players voluntarily spending their own money for the benefit of the public.

The modern state-run lottery is a complex organization with a number of different functions. Among the most important is its role in raising funds for the public good. This is accomplished through the sale of tickets with a small percentage of proceeds being allocated to a prize fund. In most cases, a single large prize is offered along with a number of smaller prizes. A number of expenses, including profits for the promoter and costs of promotion, are deducted from the prize pool before determining the winner(s).

In addition to its financial function, the lottery is also a tool for social engineering. By encouraging a broad cross section of the population to participate, the lottery can be used to influence public opinion and policy on a variety of issues. The lottery is especially effective at generating widespread support for a particular cause, such as the building of colleges. The Continental Congress, for example, voted to hold a lottery to raise funds for the American Revolution.

Although the state-run lottery is a complex and controversial enterprise, it continues to enjoy broad public support. In many states, over 60% of adults report playing the lottery at least once a year. The lottery has developed extensive specific constituencies, including convenience store operators (who provide the sales outlets for lotteries); ticket suppliers; teachers (in states in which revenues are earmarked for education); and state legislators.

It is a fact that the bulk of lottery players and revenue come from middle-income neighborhoods, while far fewer play in high-income or low-income communities. This is a result of the way that most lotteries are operated; they are run as business enterprises with the goal of maximizing revenues through advertising and the introduction of new games.

This approach has produced a number of problems, ranging from the negative effects on the poor to problems associated with problem gambling. It is also questionable whether the maximizing objective of the lottery should be pursued when the cost-benefit analysis suggests that some considerations may be more important than others. The example of allocating drugs by lottery, however, illustrates that a weighted lottery is a valuable tool for expressing an institutional commitment to a particular consideration. In the case of a drug that is expected to have significant societal benefits, it is probably fair to give priority to those who will need it most in the future.