What Is a Lottery?


A lottery is a gambling game or method of raising money, in which a large number of tickets are sold and a drawing is held for prizes. A lottery differs from a conventional game of chance in that the winning token or symbols are predetermined and chosen by random means.

A state lottery usually consists of several elements: the establishment of a monopoly; a public agency to run the lottery rather than licensing private firms in return for a share of the profits; a set of rules to determine how much to charge for a ticket and the frequency and size of prizes; and a procedure, such as shaking or tossing, by which the winning tickets are selected. The rules may also specify the percentage of prize money to be devoted to each game, the amount of the cost of organizing and promoting the lottery, the percentage of ticket sales to be taken by the organizers as revenues and profit, and the amount of the remaining prizes to be awarded to players.

In addition to these administrative aspects, a lottery must be designed with a certain degree of fairness and integrity. In the United States, this involves a complicated system of rules to protect players against fraud or collusion and to ensure that the winnings are fairly distributed. Many states also adopt a code of ethics for lottery officials and prohibit certain practices that might unfairly influence the results of a drawing.

Despite these restrictions, the majority of state lotteries enjoy broad public support. While the exact reasons vary, a primary factor appears to be the degree to which the proceeds are seen as benefiting some particular public good, such as education. This argument is often particularly effective during periods of economic stress, when the prospect of tax increases or cuts in public services can heighten anxiety about the general welfare.

The word “lottery” probably derives from Middle Dutch loterie, a calque on the Latin verb lotere, meaning to draw lots or to cast lots. The earliest state-sponsored lotteries were established in 15th-century Burgundy and Flanders to raise money for defense fortifications and charitable projects. The French King Francis I began a series of lottery-like games in Paris in the 1500s.

Some critics contend that lottery games impose a cost on society that cannot be justified by their benefits, such as the potential for compulsive gambling or the regressive impact of low-income groups. These critics argue that a more legitimate alternative is to impose sin taxes on vices like alcohol and tobacco, which have less destructive social effects than gambling. But the critics are likely missing the point: While gambling can lead to problems, it is nowhere near as harmful in the aggregate as the consumption of tobacco and alcohol, which are more widely enjoyed by a larger part of society.

The fact that people choose to gamble is a reflection of their preferences, and in some cases the desire to acquire wealth, power, or prestige. The pleasure or entertainment value that lottery players obtain from playing the games, in combination with the expected utility of monetary and non-monetary gains, can make the purchase of a ticket a rational choice for them.