The story The Lottery by Shirley Jackson depicts a small town in America where traditions and customs control the lives of its people. It is a story of the evil that can be found in small, peaceful looking places. It is also a story about the blindness that can be attached to tradition and ritual.
While the casting of lots has a long history in human culture, including several instances in the Bible, the lottery as a means of making money is of more recent origin. It was probably introduced in the thirteenth century for purposes like municipal repairs, but was not popularized until the late seventeenth century with a game known as “keno.” The keno game, which resembles a bingo game, is similar to the modern state lottery: players purchase tickets with numbers and then draw them at a specific time. The odds of winning are quite low, however, which has led to the introduction of new games designed to improve the chances of winning.
State governments have long promoted the lottery by saying that they can raise large sums of money without taxing their citizens. In the late twentieth century, with voters increasingly revolting against taxes, this argument took on a new urgency. New Hampshire, a state with an enviable reputation for fiscal restraint, approved its first state lottery in 1964, and others followed suit in the Northeast and Rust Belt. Revenues typically expand dramatically upon the introduction of a lottery, and then level off or decline. As a result, the industry has become reliant on innovations that increase sales, such as the scratch-off ticket, which has reduced prize amounts while offering higher odds of winning.
The biggest problem with lotteries is that they dangle the promise of instant riches in an age of inequality and limited social mobility. They essentially lie to their customers by saying, “If you can only win the jackpot, all your problems will be solved.” God forbids coveting the possessions of our neighbors (Exodus 20:17). Lottery advertising makes it look as though we can buy our way out of life’s troubles with a few dollars.
Many state lotteries are now struggling financially. The high costs of operating a lottery have led to a steady stream of criticism and lawsuits against them, but politicians and other officials seem determined to keep the lottery alive. Some states are now even promoting sports betting, which, by its nature, has an even lower revenue potential than the state lottery. Despite these problems, there is still much support for the idea of legalizing state-sponsored gambling. Some argue that it is the only way to raise enough money to provide essential services, such as education, police and fire protection, and road maintenance. But the truth is that most of these arguments are based on faulty assumptions and misguided ideologies. As the world becomes more technologically advanced, it is unlikely that lotteries will ever be a reliable source of tax revenue for government.