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The Official Lottery

The official lottery is a gambling type that distributes something (usually money or prizes) among a group of people by chance. Modern lotteries also include commercial promotions in which property or merchandise is given away randomly, and some government-sponsored activities, such as military conscription and the selection of jury members. The term “lottery” may also refer to the distribution of land or other property by chance.

The history of the lottery can be traced back to the Low Countries in the 15th century, when a number of towns held public lotteries for town fortifications and to help the poor. The first recorded jackpot was a prize of 50,000 florins (about $170,000 in today’s dollars) for a ticket purchased by a man named Jan van Erpenburgh, who was the keeper of the Dutch East India Company’s storehouse in Amsterdam.

When jackpots grow to apparently newsworthy amounts, they stimulate sales and encourage people to watch the draw on television. They also give the games a windfall of free publicity. This is why the biggest jackpots, not the odds of winning, are the focus of most lottery advertising.

State governments, which run the lotteries, are, as Cohen writes, essentially political entities defined by their “aversion to taxes.” They viewed these games as budgetary miracles—a way for them to collect huge sums of money without imposing a sales or income tax and risking a punishing voter backlash.