What is the Lottery?


A lottery is a game where one person wins a prize, usually money, by drawing lots. Lotteries are often run by governments to raise funds or provide benefits for citizens. Some people also play private lotteries to win prizes such as cars, vacations or other valuable items. The practice of determining distribution by lot is ancient—Nero used them to give away slaves—and the casting of lots is attested to in many parts of the Bible. Lotteries were common in early America and helped to fund the construction of several colleges: Harvard, Dartmouth, Yale, King’s College (now Columbia), Union and William and Mary. They also were a popular way for individuals to sell products or properties for more than they could receive in a regular sale.

State lotteries have grown increasingly popular, but they are not a solution to state budget crises. In fact, they are a means of shifting wealth from those who have the least to those who have the most. They also obscure the regressivity of gambling, which is why state lottery commissions market their games as fun and wacky—which they are, but it’s a strategy that confuses and misleads.

The short story “The Lottery” by Katherine Anne Porter first appeared in The New Yorker in 1940 and it’s a brilliant illustration of the dangers of gambling. In the story, a man named Bill Summers puts a slip of paper in a box for each member of his family and then draws them. His wife, Tessie, gets the ill-fated slip. The townspeople begin to throw stones at her and she screams that the lottery is unjust.

What is true of the lottery in this story is true of all forms of gambling: it exposes players to addiction and can have a profound impact on families. It is also no surprise that lottery ads feature attractive women and sexy cars, or that state lottery commissions use math to keep people buying tickets—strategies not all that different from those of tobacco companies and video-game manufacturers.

But what’s most troubling about the lottery is the way it reeks of exploitation and moral compromise. When people win the lottery, it is often because they don’t work hard enough or don’t care about other people. And a huge portion of lottery proceeds are spent on advertising and prizes that appeal to that very mentality.

The lottery’s popularity grew in the nineteen-sixties as states struggled to balance their budgets and expand services without incurring the wrath of an anti-tax electorate. Cohen’s account of its rise suggests that the real motivation for promoting it was not concern about social justice or fairness, but rather an appreciation of the obscene amount of money to be made in gambling. It’s a great story that will be of interest to students and teachers of history, economics and business. But it’s also a powerful lesson about how not to govern.