Lottery is an ancient pastime, with a history dating back to the Roman Empire (Nero was a fan) and the Bible, where the casting of lots is used for everything from selecting the next king of Israel to divining God’s will. It was also common in England and America during the colonial period, when it helped finance a number of public works projects and even spread to the colonies despite Protestant proscriptions against gambling.
The earliest state-sponsored lotteries grew up in the Low Countries in the 15th century. At that time, lottery was often viewed as a budgetary miracle, allowing states to maintain existing services without raising taxes or provoking an outraged electorate. In fact, Cohen writes, many politicians saw it as a way to get rid of taxation altogether.
Today, Americans spend more than $80 billion a year on lotteries. The money is raised by selling tickets, and the prizes are a combination of a large jackpot and a series of smaller prizes. Some of the larger prizes are offered every week, while others are only available in special draws, usually at major events.
Despite the odds against winning, people keep playing. They have quote-unquote systems for picking numbers, they buy tickets at a certain store on a specific day, they check the results online. And if they don’t win, they try again. Lottery is addictive, and the commissions behind it aren’t above exploiting that psychology, just as they would the addictions of tobacco or video games.