The Official Lottery

The official lottery is the procedure of distributing something—usually money or prizes—among a group of people by lot, or chance. The term usually refers to a state-run game, but it can also apply to privately promoted games and even to gambling games played over the Internet. The founders were big believers in the power of lotteries, and they used them for everything from supplying guns for the defense of Philadelphia to rebuilding Faneuil Hall in Boston. They also funded a number of American colleges, including Harvard, Dartmouth, Yale, and King’s College.

Despite their popularity, public opinion was growing against the lotteries, especially as concerns about corruption and mismanagement grew. By the mid-nineteenth century, advocates could no longer argue that a lottery would float a state’s budget. They instead began to claim that it would fund a single line item, invariably one of the most popular government services—education, elder care, or aid for veterans. It was a strategy that worked, and it enabled lottery supporters to make winning the vote as easy as buying a Snickers bar.

Ultimately, it was the scandalous behavior of the Louisiana State Lottery Company that killed state lotteries in America. The crooked promoters were so powerful that it took a federal law banning interstate lottery promotions and sales to bring them down. But not before the lottery had become a monopoly that produced enormous profits for its private promoters and acquired an equally massive reputation for graft.