What Is a Lottery?

A lottery is a game in which participants pay a small amount of money for the chance to win a large prize. The prize may be cash, goods or services. The lottery is a popular source of entertainment and a vehicle for raising funds for public purposes. It has broad popular support and is regulated by the government in most countries. Some states have even adopted it as a primary source of state revenue. However, some people have concerns about the fairness of the lottery system.

A number of different things can be considered a lottery, but the most common is a random selection process to allocate prizes. This may be as simple as picking a piece of paper, but more complex lotteries include a pool of tickets or counterfoils that are thoroughly mixed (along with whatever other ingredients the specific lottery requires) before being pulled from a hopper to select winners. Computers are often used to ensure that the process is random.

While the lottery is a form of gambling, its popularity and success have given rise to a wide variety of special interests and problems. In addition to the general public, lottery games have developed extensive specific constituencies: convenience store operators, as the usual vendors; lottery suppliers (heavy contributions from these businesses to state political campaigns are frequently reported); teachers, in those states where lottery revenues are earmarked for education; and state legislators (who become accustomed to the extra revenue).

In the United States, state-run lotteries first appeared in the nineteen-sixties as the nation’s tax revolt intensified. Voters and politicians alike were looking for ways to balance state budgets without raising taxes or cutting public services, and the lottery seemed like a viable solution.

Cohen focuses on this latter incarnation of the lottery, starting with New Hampshire’s launch of the modern era of state lotteries in 1964 and continuing through the tumultuous years of the seventies and eighties when it became clear that America’s prosperity was beginning to wane.

As the story of Tessie Hutchinson shows, however, a problem with lotteries is that they can be prone to violence. While the original intention of the lottery was to choose a victim, who would be stoned to death by the community, it is possible that the lottery’s role in this ritual has been misinterpreted by its players. The real reason they keep playing, it could be argued, is not the desire to win a large sum of money but the desire for a sense of belonging and tradition. This article was originally published in the April 2016 issue of “Harper’s Magazine” and can be found online here. Harper’s Magazine Foundation, 2016. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Please send inquiries to [email protected]. For more information, see our Terms of Use. Harper’s Magazine is available in the following languages: English, French, German, Japanese, and Spanish. For international subscriptions, contact us here.