What is a Lottery?

Lottery is a game in which people pay a small sum for a chance to win a larger sum. They buy tickets, select a group of numbers (or let machines do it for them), and hope that their ticket matches the winning combination. Most states have lotteries, and the bulk of proceeds go to public use. Lottery participants may be motivated by the entertainment value or by the desire to become wealthy. They are not necessarily rational; for example, the expected disutility of a monetary loss might outweigh the utility of non-monetary benefits.

Most state lotteries resemble traditional raffles, with the public purchasing tickets to be entered into a drawing at some future time. The jackpots grow to apparently newsworthy amounts and attract attention in newspapers, radio, and TV, driving sales. Then the money starts to dry up, and new games must be introduced to maintain or increase revenues.

State officials promote the lottery as a source of “painless” revenue, but players are essentially being taxed without their consent. In addition, the state gains control of the money and becomes dependent on it, with the ability to make policy only intermittently.

The term lottery was first recorded in the Low Countries during the 15th century, as a calque on Middle Dutch loterie, or “action of drawing lots.” Early American lotteries were popular and widespread, including Benjamin Franklin’s 1748 attempt to raise funds for cannons during the Revolutionary War, John Hancock’s lottery to rebuild Faneuil Hall, and George Washington’s attempt to finance construction of the Mountain Road in Virginia.

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