A lottery is a game in which players pay for a ticket, select a group of numbers (or have machines randomly spit them out), and win prizes if their selected numbers match those drawn by a machine. Most lotteries are organized by states, but some are private and commercial; for example, the heirs of Benjamin Franklin used a lottery to raise money for cannons to defend Philadelphia against the British in 1776. Lottery advertising is notorious for exaggerating the odds of winning, inflating the amount of money that can be won (because the jackpot is paid out over 20 years and is subject to taxes and inflation), and generally misleading the public.
While the lottery is often criticized for encouraging compulsive gambling, it is also an excellent source of revenue for governments and other organizations that need to make investments, but do not have enough capital to do so. Lottery revenues have been a major source of funding for the building of the British Museum and for the repair of bridges, and in colonial America they helped to fund churches, colleges, roads, canals, and other public works projects.
Once established, lottery systems tend to have broad public support; however, their operations are highly politicized and the operation of state lotteries is a classic example of policy decisions made piecemeal with little overall overview. This results in the development of large specific constituencies – for instance, convenience store operators and lottery suppliers whose contributions to state political campaigns are regularly reported; teachers, in those states where a portion of lotto proceeds is earmarked for education; etc.