A lottery is a game in which numbers or symbols are drawn to determine winners. Prizes are usually cash or goods. Governments have long used lotteries to generate revenue. Lottery profits are normally earmarked for specific public purposes. State governments, for example, use them to build colleges and universities. Some states also run public lotteries to finance governmental projects, such as road construction. The game has also become a popular form of entertainment, in which bettors attempt to predict the outcome of future events.
Although distributing prizes by lot has a long history (see Casting of Lots), the modern state-sponsored lottery is relatively recent. The first lotteries were established in Europe in the 15th century, and advertisements using the word lotteries began appearing in English newspapers in 1669. The term lotteries comes from the Dutch noun lotte, which means “fate” or “destiny” and is probably a calque on Middle French loterie, which in turn may be derived from the Latin verb lottare, meaning to choose by lot.
Several elements are essential to a lottery. The first is some method of recording the identities and amounts staked by bettors. The second is a pool or collection of tickets or their counterfoils from which the winning symbols are selected. Various methods can be used to mix the pool, and computers have increasingly been employed for this purpose, since they are capable of storing the information in a highly reliable manner.
Once established, a lottery must attract and retain participants in order to succeed. It does so by establishing specific constituencies, including convenience store operators (who sell tickets); lottery suppliers (heavy contributors to state political campaigns are routinely reported); teachers in those states where the proceeds from the lottery are earmarked for education; and state legislators and governors (who quickly develop a taste for gambling).
Lotteries have also gained widespread popularity as ways of awarding prizes for private activities. For example, the National Basketball Association holds a lottery to determine the order in which teams draft their college players, with the team that selects first being granted the right to pick any of its top prospects.
Despite these attractions, there are a number of reasons why the lottery is not a good choice for government. In addition to the obvious ethical concerns, there are practical problems. For one, it is difficult to assess the costs and benefits of the lottery. The costs are ill-defined, and often lumped in with other gambling expenditures. The benefits, however, are easier to quantify. They include the return on money that would have been spent anyway, as well as the multiplier effect of this new spending. These benefits make the lottery an attractive option for state governments seeking to raise revenues without raising taxes or imposing direct fees. For this reason, lottery advocates tend to ignore the morality and ethical issues associated with the practice. This article will explore these issues, and suggest some alternative strategies for achieving the same goals without the negatives.