The short story, “Lottery,” is set in a small American village on June 27, the day of the annual lottery. The villagers gather for the ritual, which is believed to ensure a successful harvest. It has become a central feature of the village’s culture, and the villagers are not happy to hear that other villages have discontinued it.
Lottery is an ancient practice, spanning thousands of years. The casting of lots to determine property distribution dates back to the Bible—the Lord instructs Moses to divide land by lot—and it was a popular pastime among Romans and other ancient peoples for entertainment, to divine God’s will, or as an alternative to taxes.
More recently, governments have begun using the lottery to raise money for everything from road repairs to wars. It is the most common form of government-sponsored gambling, and it has an enormous appeal to ordinary citizens: the prizes are often very large, the tickets are cheap, and the odds of winning are relatively low. In the United States, state-run lotteries have become so popular that they account for almost a fifth of the total revenue raised by all forms of legalized gambling.
Although some people object to the regressive effect of state-sponsored lotteries on lower-income groups, these concerns tend to shift the focus of discussion from whether the practice should be allowed to exist to the specific details of the lottery’s operations. Most state lotteries begin operations by legislating a monopoly for themselves; they establish an agency or public corporation to run the lottery (rather than licensing a private firm in return for a percentage of the profits); and then progressively expand the size and complexity of their games, as pressure to increase revenues mounts.
Moreover, many states rely on advertising campaigns that emphasize the euphoric experience of scratching a ticket and the mathematical formula behind each game’s odds of success. The goal is to keep lottery players engaged in the gamble, while the message coded into these ads is meant to obscure that it is a serious addiction that causes people to spend a large portion of their incomes on tickets and, as with other addictive behaviors like smoking or video games, can lead to health problems.
In some cases, these marketing strategies may be ethically problematic. But they provide a convenient moral cover for those who support state-sponsored lotteries, as they allow them to justify arguing that since people are going to gamble anyway, the state might as well collect tax revenue from their play. This argument, which is similar to those used by proponents of sin taxes, has limited utility and moral legitimacy, but it does help explain why so many ordinary people accept state-sponsored lotteries despite their negative consequences. This article appeared in the October 2014 issue of Harper’s Magazine. To subscribe to the magazine, click here. To find past articles in this series, click here.