The odds that someone wins the lottery are long. But that doesn’t stop people from staking big sums for the chance of a life-changing jackpot. And while many people who buy tickets have all sorts of irrational systems (quote-unquote) that aren’t based in statistics, the truth is they all know it is a long shot. They just feel like somebody has to win.

It’s a strange societal phenomenon that we can explain partly in terms of our meritocratic belief that we are all going to get rich somehow. And this carries over to a whole slew of other competitions, including professional sports teams and political campaigns. It even explains why some companies are willing to go to extreme lengths to ensure that they can make a big winning streak in their stock-picking contests. (See this article on a couple who made $27 million over nine years by doing just that.)

But there’s also the fact that lotteries are actually quite old. They have their roots in the 15th century Low Countries, when towns held public lotteries to raise money for town fortifications and help the poor. Once states took control, they were used to fund a variety of projects, from churches and universities to wars and public-works projects.

State governments now spend the vast majority of their lottery proceeds in education and other public goods, but if you look back at how they allocated those funds from their inception, it’s clear that they started out as a way for state government to avoid higher taxes on working and middle class families. And they’ve never really stopped being that.

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