What is an Official Lottery?

A competition based on chance in which numbered tickets are sold and prizes are awarded to winners, especially as a way of raising money for public purposes.

The OED’s earliest reference to “lottery” dates back to 1567, when Queen Elizabeth I organized the English-speaking world’s first state lottery to raise money for “reparation of the Havens and strength of the Realm.” The prize for buying a ticket—again, ten shillings, a hefty sum in those days—was partly cash and partly other “sorts of merchaundizes” like tapestries and wall hangings and “good linnen cloth.” It was, in effect, an Elizabethan Prize Is Right, except that everyone who bought a ticket got one week’s immunity from arrest for any crime barring murder, piracy, or treason.

Throughout the early nineteenth century, state governments turned to lotteries for revenue in a desperate attempt to avoid enacting sales or income taxes. As Cohen puts it, these were “budgetary miracles,” allowing states to fund their existing services without risking the wrath of voters.

The campaigns that accompanied these lotteries, however, were highly misleading. Rather than claiming that the proceeds of a single drawing would float an entire state’s budget, advocates began to argue that lottery proceeds would pay for a particular line item—usually education, but sometimes elder care or public parks or aid for veterans—and that these expenditures could be justified on the basis of a purely economic calculation. These claims, despite their hyperbole, were often successful.