What is a Lottery?

The lottery is an arrangement by which prizes are allocated by a process that depends wholly on chance. It may be an arrangement by which one person or group gets a portion of a prize, a fund or property, or a share in a profit (or loss). Modern examples of such arrangements include state-sponsored lotteries, raffles for units in a subsidized housing block or kindergarten placements, and commercial promotions in which prizes are given away by random selection procedures.

The earliest recorded lottery-like arrangements in the Low Countries date from the first half of the 15th century, and were designed to raise money for a variety of town and village needs, such as walls, town fortifications, and help for the poor. The term ‘lottery’ is probably derived from the Dutch word lot, meaning fate or luck.

Since the immediate post-World War II period, state governments have relied on lotteries to allow them to expand their array of public services without raising taxes disproportionately on middle and working classes. But as these arrangements evolve, the underlying dynamics can become more and more problematic.

The chief argument for the existence of a state-sponsored lottery is that it is a source of painless revenue, a means of collecting voluntarily paid taxes from citizens and distributing them to the state for the benefit of the general welfare. This view is often invoked in times of fiscal stress, when the prospect of higher taxes or cuts in government spending might otherwise raise public ire. But studies have shown that the popularity of lotteries is not connected to a state’s objective fiscal condition, and voters seem to support them regardless of whether they are being used for education or other social goods.

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