Lottery is an arrangement in which a prize, such as money or goods, is allocated to individuals by a process that depends wholly on chance. People have been using lottery-like arrangements to distribute property since ancient times. The Bible, for instance, records that the Lord instructed Moses to divide land by lot (Numbers 26:55-56). Roman emperors gave away slaves and property as entertainment at Saturnalian feasts. Today, many people play a sort of financial lottery by buying tickets for a chance to win cash prizes. They may also use a lottery-like arrangement to allocate such things as units in a subsidized housing complex or kindergarten placements at a public school.

In colonial America, lotteries helped fund a wide variety of private and public ventures. Roads, libraries, churches, canals, and even colleges were financed by lotteries. During the Revolutionary War, colonies raised funds for their local militias with lotteries.

The idea behind state lotteries is that they provide an alternative revenue source for government services without onerous taxes on middle- and working-class families. Those who oppose this arrangement argue that it is unwise to encourage a vice that can become an addiction, but they point out that governments have long imposed sin taxes on tobacco and alcohol without achieving any noticeable reduction in those vices’ prevalence.

Those who support state lotteries usually point out that their popularity is based on the fact that they allow the public to choose a winning combination of numbers in a way that is convenient and quick, while reducing the chance of an incorrect choice. Moreover, they claim that lottery games are an effective means of encouraging people to save.