The History of the Lottery

Lottery is a form of gambling in which chance determines the distribution of prizes, usually money. It is most commonly regulated by the state and conducted through a variety of methods, including instant-win scratch-off games, daily games, and those that require you to choose numbers from a range of options. It is also a popular source of public-works funding. For example, it helped finance the Great Wall of China. It has been a part of human culture for centuries, and its roots are buried deep in history.

The idea of winning the lottery is a perennial fantasy, and the earliest recorded instances of a drawing by lot date from ancient times. In fact, it is attested in the Bible (Numbers 26:55-56): The Lord instructed Moses to take a census of Israel and divide its land among its inhabitants by lot. Lotteries were also common in the Roman Empire—Nero was a fan—and they are used throughout the book of Acts, where the casting of lots is used to distribute property, slaves, and even Jesus’ garments after his Crucifixion.

In modern times, the lottery became a popular way for states to raise funds without taxing their citizens, and it was promoted heavily in the nineteen-sixties, as inflation, population growth, and war expenses drove state budgets into crisis. This coincided with a decline in financial security for the working class, as incomes fell, pensions eroded, and health-care costs rose. It was a time when the American dream of a meritocratic society, in which hard work and education would allow children to rise into wealthier circumstances than those of their parents, began to dissolve.

As Cohen explains, the emergence of the modern lottery grew out of this confluence of forces. A growing awareness of the lucrative potential of this new gambling industry collided with a growing state deficit that could not be balanced without raising taxes or cutting services, which both were highly unpopular with voters. Lottery revenues quickly grew as a result.

Though defenders of the lottery tend to cast its players as “the stupid,” they aren’t completely ignorant of how improbable it is that they will win. Moreover, the fact that they continue to purchase tickets suggests that they are susceptible to addictive impulses—similar to those of smokers and video-game players. Indeed, the ad campaigns and packaging are designed to encourage addiction, and the math on the front of the tickets is designed to keep people buying more and more.

In The Lottery, Jackson demonstrates the evil of the lottery in a small town whose residents stone Tessie to death yearly because she’s supposedly an immoral witch who draws the shortest straw and thus is doomed to failure in life. The story is a warning to all of us, but it’s also an indictment of our own hypocrisy and greed. The lottery is a way for us to avoid confronting those traits within ourselves, which is why it still appeals to so many of us.