The word lottery evokes visions of big prizes for people who pay the price to get in. It’s an old idea, with a long history: Moses was instructed to take a census and divide the land among Israelites by lot, and Roman emperors used the lottery for the distribution of property and slaves during their Saturnalian festivities.

The modern lottery involves paying a small amount to be in with a chance of winning a large prize, and it is typically administered by a state or national government. The prize fund can be fixed in amount, or it can be a percentage of total receipts. It’s illegal to operate a lottery without payment of consideration, which may be money or something else such as goods or services.

Lottery raises a great deal of money for states, but that revenue is inefficiently collected and only amounts to a tiny fraction of overall state budgets. And it’s a very tricky form of gambling, encouraging many people to spend what they can’t afford to lose in the hope that they’ll win.

It’s a dangerous premise, particularly in an age of increasing inequality and limited social mobility, and there is no doubt that some people find it hard to resist the temptation to buy a ticket. But it’s important to think about what we’re really getting for that little bit of money that we all pay for a slim, improbable chance at the brass ring.