The Dark Side of the Lottery

The lottery is a form of gambling in which numbers are drawn to determine who will win money or goods. It is a popular form of entertainment in the United States and contributes billions of dollars to state revenues annually. While the casting of lots for decisions and fates has a long history in human society—including several instances recorded in the Bible—the modern lottery originated in the Low Countries in the 15th century, when towns held public lotteries to raise funds for town improvements, and to distribute food for the poor.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, public lotteries played a large role in helping to build the American nation. The new country’s banking and taxation systems were in their early stages, and the lottery was a convenient way to raise cash quickly for public projects. It also helped fund many of the first American colleges—Harvard, Yale, Dartmouth, King’s College (now Columbia), William and Mary, Union, and Brown—and George Washington sponsored a lottery in 1768 to pay off his debts and buy cannons for the city of Philadelphia.

But there is a dark side to this form of government-sponsored gambling. Two moral arguments are commonly advanced against it, and they both involve the lottery’s regressive effect on lower-income people. The first is that a lottery violates the notion of voluntary taxation. By taking from the poor and working class without giving back in return, it is a form of unfair taxation that hurts those least able to afford it.

The second moral argument against the lottery is that it preys on people’s illusory hopes. By encouraging people to spend money on tickets that have very little chance of success, it deprives them of the opportunity to spend their money more wisely—and perhaps achieve some form of financial security in this uncertain world.

While lottery operators have moved away from the message that people play it primarily for fun, there are still lingering messages embedded in the game. The most important one is that playing the lottery is a good thing to do because it raises money for the state. This message obscures the fact that the lottery is regressive and encourages people to ignore its effects on them.

The word “lottery” comes from the Dutch noun lotterij (“fate lottery”), which itself is derived from Middle Dutch loetterij (“action of drawing lots”). It may have been a calque on Middle French loterie, which appears in print for the first time in 1466. Learn more about the history of this and other English words with the Practical English Usage dictionary. Our handy app has thousands of examples from the real world to help you understand how to use words in everyday life. Download it today for free from the Apple App Store or Google Play. Start each day with our Word of the Day in your inbox. You can also subscribe to receive our daily newsletter and get a list of the most recently added words to the database.