Lottery is a common form of gambling in which the drawing of numbers determines a prize. It is also used for military conscription, commercial promotions in which property or services are given away randomly, and the selection of juries from lists of registered voters. Despite its widespread use, there are few state lotteries that qualify as a true gambling activity in which money or something of value is exchanged for the chance to win. However, because the drawing of numbers is a completely random process, a lottery is considered to be unbiased, provided that no payment is made for the opportunity to draw.

The practice of distributing land and other property by lottery dates back centuries. The Old Testament instructed Moses to conduct a census of the Israelites and divide their land by lot; Roman emperors gave away slaves and property by the same method. But it was not until the nineteen-sixties, as states began to face budget shortfalls due to inflation, population growth and war costs, that a growing awareness of all the money to be made in the gambling business collided with a need for additional state revenue created a booming industry.

In the United States, the first lottery was held in 1745 in Massachusetts, and public lotteries became widespread during the eighteenth century despite strict Protestant prohibitions against gambling. In fact, lotteries were a popular source of funding for everything from civil defense to church construction to even the Continental Congress’s attempt to hold a lottery to raise funds for the Revolutionary War. Privately organized lotteries were common, too, and were a means of selling products or properties for more than could be obtained in a regular sale.

State lotteries have a number of problems, the most obvious being that they are an extremely expensive way to fund government. But the biggest problem is that they dangle a hope of instant riches in an age of inequality and limited social mobility. In the past, people who have won big prizes have slept as paupers and woke up millionaires. Many of them have taken the money and spent it on self-gratification, luxuries, and grandiose lifestyles.

Lottery commissioners know this, which is why they are constantly seeking ways to increase the odds of winning, by increasing or decreasing the number of balls or adding new games such as keno. They are trying to strike the perfect balance between high ticket sales and large jackpots. But if the odds become too long, it is likely that someone will win almost every week and ticket sales will decline. This in turn leads to the need for yet more promotion. It is a vicious cycle that will continue until the industry finds a more equitable and fair way to distribute wealth. Until then, the lottery will remain a dangerous form of gambling. The writer is a professor at the University of California, Berkeley. Her most recent book is The Price of Fish.