The History of Lotteries


The lottery, the game where participants pay a small amount of money for a chance to win a larger sum, is an old and ubiquitous form of allocating scarce resources. Examples include a lottery for kindergarten admission at a reputable school, a lottery to determine who occupies units in a subsidized housing block, and a lottery to select the recipient of a lifesaving vaccine. Lotteries also play a vital role in sports and business. The NBA draft, in which the winning team gets the first pick of the best players graduating from college, is a lottery. The NHL entry draft and the NFL free-agent signings are based on the same principle.

But in a time of economic crisis, lotteries became something very different. Politicians, facing a swollen population and rising inflation, were unable to balance state budgets without raising taxes or cutting services. Lotteries seemed to offer a solution, a way for states to bring in hundreds of millions seemingly out of nowhere.

As a result, in the nineteen sixties, lotteries soared in popularity, as the economy collapsed. Many people viewed them as a painless way to pay for their government’s services, a solution to a problem that otherwise would have forced them to choose between increasing taxes and cutting spending or raising taxes and cutting spending—choices that are generally perceived as undesirable.

Lotteries can take on a variety of forms, from the familiar, in which numbers are drawn at random to more complex ones, in which participants submit a list of candidates for a particular position. The most famous are the national lotteries, where people bet on a number or series of numbers, and the state or local ones, in which citizens participate in contests to allocate municipal services or land.

In the seventeenth century, European colonists brought lotteries with them as they settled America. The games grew in popularity among the settlers, despite Protestant proscriptions against gambling and dice. Eventually, lotteries became an American institution, as evidenced by the fact that Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton both supported them. In addition to the monetary prizes, which ranged from livestock and farm products to slaves, some lotteries awarded intangible goods or services.

The history of lotteries is a story of how much human beings value hope. They are a powerful tool for allocating scarce resources and a means of promoting social cohesion and equity. Yet, a lottery’s success ultimately depends on the willingness of participants to place a bet that has no chance of winning and, in so doing, devalue their own personal dignity.

The ubiquity of the lottery speaks to our insatiable appetite for chance, but it also points to the enduring human desire to control our own fates and the fundamental insecurity of that prospect. Tessie Hutchinson’s ambivalence toward her family, a reflection of her inner insecurity, underscores the theme of the story. It also highlights the pervasiveness of iniquity in our world, which is why we must work together to make it better.