A lottery is a form of gambling in which prizes, usually cash, are awarded to participants based on a random drawing. The first known state-sponsored lotteries are recorded in the Low Countries in the 15th century, but the practice may be much older.

The success of a lottery, particularly for a public good, depends on the extent to which it is perceived as a meritocratic mechanism for allocating something that is limited in supply but still in high demand. This could be anything from kindergarten admission at a well-respected school to an apartment in a desirable neighborhood or a vaccine against a fast-moving virus.

Historically, state lotteries have promoted themselves as a way to generate “painless” revenue—instead of increasing taxes or cutting essential services—for an improved public good. This argument works especially well in an antitax era, and it has proven successful even when the actual fiscal condition of state governments is strong.

Regardless of its merits, however, this function puts the lottery at cross-purposes with many larger public goals and raises a number of important questions. For example, by advertising heavily for itself, a lottery promotes gambling and the irrational beliefs that are associated with it. It also draws on a large constituency of convenience store operators and suppliers (the lottery is often a major source of revenue for them), teachers (in states where the revenues are earmarked for education), and state legislators (who quickly become accustomed to the extra funds). These special interests have their own interests that conflict with those of the general public.