The History of the Lottery

In a bucolic small town, on June 27th of an unspecified year, the people are gathered in the central square. Children newly on summer break are the first to assemble. Adults follow them, exhibiting the stereotypical normality of small-town life: they are warmly gossiping and discussing work. This is the day of the yearly lottery.

The casting of lots to decide matters and determine fates has a long history in human culture, including the Bible (e.g., Exodus 24:6), and Roman emperors used them to distribute property and slaves. The earliest state-sponsored lotteries in Europe were organized for municipal repairs in the city of Rome.

Today’s state lotteries are a classic example of a public policy that evolves piecemeal with little overall overview or control. After a state authorizes the lottery, it typically establishes a state agency or public corporation to run the lottery; begins operations with a modest number of relatively simple games; and then expands based on the continual pressure to raise revenues. This expansion includes adding new games and increasing promotional spending.

One of the biggest problems with this expansion is that it promotes gambling. This is an affront to the biblical command not to covet (Exodus 20:17; see Ecclesiastes 5:10). It also gives the impression that the state is running its lottery at cross-purposes with the public interest. Moreover, when state-sponsored lotteries advertise the fact that they are raising money for the state, they convey a message that even if you lose, by buying a ticket, you are doing your civic duty.