The lottery is a popular form of gambling that raises money for public projects. It is an essential tool for governments looking to raise funds without provoking tax revolts, and it has become a major part of American culture. But what does the lottery tell us about our moral attitudes?

Many people try to improve their odds of winning by choosing their own numbers. But this approach is a mistake, says Clotfelter. For one thing, a lot of these numbers are personal—like birthdays or home addresses—and they have patterns that make them more likely to repeat. Plus, they often fall within the range of one to 31, which reduces the number of possible combinations, thereby making it more difficult to avoid sharing the prize.

Lotteries have long been a point of agreement between Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton, who grasped the principle that “Everybody will be willing to hazard a trifling sum for the opportunity of gaining considerable gain.” But they have also entangled with the slave trade, and George Washington managed a lottery that offered human beings as prizes—while Denmark Vesey won a lottery ticket in South Carolina that allowed him to purchase his freedom, then go on to foment slave rebellions.

The wealthy play the lottery, too—one of the largest jackpots was won by three asset managers from Greenwich, Connecticut—but they buy fewer tickets than poorer people, and their purchases represent a much smaller percentage of their incomes. This means that the lottery is a form of regressive taxation, with richer players paying more than poorer ones.