The Lottery

A competition based on chance in which numbered tickets are sold and prizes are awarded to holders of numbers drawn at random. The term also refers to the action of playing in such a lottery or to the process of organizing or running one.

The story of the villager who is murdered in the Lottery, written by Shirley Jackson, offers a chilling parable about blind faith and human evil. The villagers accept the ritual killing because it has always been done in their community, and they are powerless to stop it. They are so accepting of the death that they do not even question why it is done. They do not realize that the death is inflicted upon them at random and without cause, but rather because they happen to draw a certain number in the lottery. The villagers also do not realize that the ritual killing is meant to bring them back to primitive times.

In the early days of state-run lotteries, legalization advocates made their case essentially by arguing that the proceeds would float most or all of a state budget. This was a popular and persuasive message because, compared to other taxes, the lottery would be relatively painless. But as jackpots grew to unsustainable proportions, and more people began to lose than win, those advocating legalization had to change tactics. They stopped arguing that a lottery would fund every government service, and started claiming it could cover a single line item, invariably education but occasionally other items such as elder care or public parks.

This narrower approach to promoting the lottery was helpful because it changed the discussion away from the merits of gambling in general to specific features of the industry, such as its problem with compulsive gamblers and its alleged regressive impact on lower-income groups. It was also a helpful message because it allowed the proponents of the lottery to avoid arguing that their scheme would be an effective alternative to taxes, which they knew most voters oppose.

The national obsession with the improbable riches that can be won in a lottery, however, came at a time when most Americans’ financial security was crumbling. The wealth gap widened, pensions eroded, health-care costs rose, and the American promise that education and hard work could provide a secure life for children was beginning to seem hollow. This is why the lottery has remained so popular, and why the state’s obsession with it continues to grow.