The Official Lottery

An official lottery is a form of gambling in which many people purchase chances, called tickets. The winning tickets are drawn from a pool, consisting of all tickets sold (sweepstakes) or offered for sale, or consisting of all or most of the possible permutations of the numbers or symbols used on the tickets.

The first known European lotteries were held during the Roman Empire, mainly as amusements at dinner parties. Each guest was given a ticket, which was guaranteed to win something; prizes would range from dinnerware to fancy goods.

After the Roman Empire, the practice spread across Europe, where it quickly became a popular way to raise revenue and build town fortifications. It soon took hold in England, where it became an important source of income for the government.

As governments were struggling to balance their budgets without increasing taxes, advocates of legalizing lotteries argued that it could help them achieve that goal. They claimed that the proceeds of a lottery would fill state coffers, so that states could maintain their social safety nets and vital services without raising tax rates.

But a quick look at the finances of the first legalized state lotteries revealed that their revenue actually fell well short of what proponents had promised. In New Jersey, for example, the lottery brought in thirty-three million dollars in its first year — only two per cent of the state’s overall revenue.

As a result, opponents of state-run gambling began questioning both the ethics of funding public services through gambling and the amount that states really stood to gain. They tended to hail from both sides of the political aisle, but their most vociferous critics were devout Protestants, who considered the idea of using money to fund government services as morally indefensible.