The Lottery and Its Role in Society

Lottery, the process by which numbers or other symbols are drawn to determine prizes in a competition, has a long history. The Old Testament instructs Moses to take a census of Israel and divide land by lot, and Roman emperors used lotteries to give away property and slaves at Saturnalian feasts. In the United States, state-licensed promoters run large numbers of lotteries, which provide public funds for a variety of purposes. They are popular with the general public, who can choose from among many different prizes, including cash and goods.

Lotteries are a form of gambling, and critics have called them addictive and harmful. But lottery supporters argue that if people are going to gamble anyway, it is better for governments to allow them to do so and use the proceeds to fund worthwhile projects. They also note that lottery revenue has proved highly responsive to economic fluctuations, with sales rising as incomes fall and unemployment rates rise.

But defenders of the lottery often misrepresent its role in society, writes the journalist Daniel F. Cohen. The lottery “synopsizes a profoundly flawed philosophy,” he writes. It “dismisses ethical objections to government gambling and argues that, because people are going to gamble anyway, the government might as well pocket the profits.” And it is no secret that lottery proceeds are distributed unequally.

Moreover, when the lottery was first introduced in America, advocates wildly overstated its impact on state finances. In the first year that California’s lottery was in operation, for example, the revenue supposedly covered about five per cent of its education budget. Such claims were designed to appeal to voters who tended to support the lottery, while dissuading those who would be opposed.

The underlying assumption of such campaigns is that lottery funds can finance a range of programs, from kindergarten placements to units in a subsidized housing block. But this is simply false. As with all commercial products, lottery revenues are highly responsive to economic fluctuation. They increase as incomes fall, unemployment rises, and poverty rates grow. And, like other forms of advertising, lottery ads are most heavily promoted in neighborhoods that are disproportionately poor, Black, or Latino.

And there is no reason to believe that lottery revenues will do anything other than skew spending decisions, because, as history shows, the winners of a lottery are more likely to spend their money on something other than what they claimed they wanted to win. Moreover, even when they do spend their winnings on those things, the odds are that they will find themselves worse off than they were before they won. For these reasons, the idea of a lottery that distributes money to all members of a community is deeply flawed. Fortunately, Shirley Jackson’s short story, The Lottery, shows how this can be avoided. In this tale of a remote American village, the entire community gathers in the town square to compete in a lottery that has terrible consequences. It is an eloquent reminder of how dangerous it is to follow tradition blindly.