A lot of people play the lottery, and most of them know they won’t win. But they keep playing because there’s a sliver of hope that they might. This is a form of addiction, and state lottery commissions are not above availing themselves of psychological tricks to keep people buying tickets.
The first recorded lotteries to offer tickets for prizes in money are from the 15th century in Burgundy and Flanders, where towns used them to raise funds to fortify town walls and help the poor. But the earliest public lottery to award money prizes in Europe was a venture called the ventura, established in Modena by the d’Este family around 1476.
In colonial America, lotteries were a major source of government financing for canals, bridges, roads, libraries, churches, colleges, and other public projects. But they also financed wars and helped supply arms to the colonies’ militias. During the French and Indian Wars, lotteries also became tangled up with slavery. George Washington managed a lottery whose prizes included human beings, and one formerly enslaved man won a South Carolina lottery and went on to foment slave rebellions.
The lottery has become a fixture of American life, with the average person spending upward of $100 billion on tickets every year. But that’s not necessarily a good thing. The lottery’s rise corresponded with a decline in financial security for most Americans: pensions and job benefits eroded, health-care costs rose, and our longstanding national promise that hard work and education would make you richer than your parents was proven false.