A shabby black box sits in the center of a jumbled table. The villagers who gather around it are inexplicably loyal to the lottery, though it hasn’t produced a single winner for years and its pieces are literally falling apart. Their attachment to this lottery, like so many others in their lives, is illogical and grounded in tradition.

The lottery is a scheme for the distribution of prizes by chance: a large number of tickets bearing different symbols are sold, and after all have been submitted the winners are chosen. The prizes may be cash, goods, or services. Most lotteries offer a very large prize in addition to several smaller ones. Lotteries have a broad appeal as a means of raising money, in part because they are relatively easy to organize and popular with the public.

In the modern sense of the word, lotteries started in 15th-century Burgundy and Flanders, where towns sought to raise money to fortify their defenses or aid the poor. In the US, state lotteries were established in the 1700s. They grew in popularity and helped establish several American colleges, including Harvard, Dartmouth, Yale, King’s College (now Columbia), William and Mary, and Union.

Lottery promoters rely on two messages. One is that the experience of buying a ticket and scratching the ticket is fun. Another is that if you win the lottery you should feel good about yourself because it’s a way to help the state or children or something. But putting these messages together obscures the fact that lottery is a very regressive form of gambling.