The practice of making decisions or determining fates by the casting of lots has an ancient history (with several instances in the Bible), although using lotteries for material gain is relatively recent. The first recorded public lottery to distribute prize money was held in the 16th century in Bruges, Belgium. The modern state-sanctioned variety of lotteries is a powerful, lucrative business that lures players into buying tickets even in states where the minimum wage is $7.25 an hour, where a lottery ticket can be purchased while picking up food at a Dollar General or cashing a check. Even the advertising campaigns for Mega Millions and Powerball are cleverly designed to keep people buying tickets. Lotteries are not above playing on the psychology of addiction, any more than cigarette companies or video-game manufacturers are.
Shirley Jackson’s short story The Lottery is a depressing tale of human sinfulness, in which the evils of human nature are revealed by an act that seems to be purely innocuous. It takes place in a small village, and revolves around the annual ritual known as The Lottery, in which the heads of families draw paper slips from a box, all of which are blank except for one that is marked with a black spot.
As the family heads draw their slips, there’s banter among the villagers, as well as an occasional reference to the old traditional rhyme: “Lottery in June/Corn be heavy soon.” Then, when the winner is announced, all that chatter is replaced with a stunned silence as the winner – Mrs. Summers – cries out in horror.
In the years following World War II, lottery revenue enabled many states to expand their social safety nets without imposing especially onerous taxes on the middle class and working class. But, as Cohen explains, by the nineteen-sixties that arrangement was beginning to crumble due to rising inflation and the costs of the Vietnam War. That’s when the states decided to revive their lotteries and use them as a way to rake in extra cash.
The modern lottery industry has grown rapidly since that revival, and now the United States and several other countries have state-sponsored lotteries. They’re also popular in Mexico, Japan, and South Korea. While some critics claim that the lottery is a form of gambling, others argue that it’s not. Neither argument is convincing.
Cohen argues that the modern lottery has become so successful because it exploits people’s insecurities and their belief in the meritocratic fantasy that they’re going to be rich someday. He argues that the initial odds are so incredible that even if they do lose, most players will continue to play because of that sense of insecurity.
But this argument ignores the fact that the lottery isn’t just a game, it’s an insidious and pernicious marketing tool that plays on people’s anxieties and addictions. Lottery officials know this and aren’t above dangling a dream of instant wealth, even in a country where inequality is growing and social mobility is slow to improve.