The Lottery and Public Policy

Gambling Aug 22, 2023

Lottery is a popular form of gambling in which numbers are drawn at random to determine a prize. The casting of lots to decide matters of importance has a long history, as exemplified by several instances in the Bible and Roman emperors’ use of the lottery to give away property and slaves during Saturnalian feasts. Modern lotteries include those used for military conscription, commercial promotions in which property or merchandise is given away by a random procedure, and the selection of jury members. Some lotteries, such as the egregious monopoly lotteries of the 18th century, were outlawed for their abuses, but others, like the state-run lotteries currently operating in most states, are legal and well-regulated.

Despite the fact that the lottery is considered a harmless form of entertainment for many people, critics have raised a variety of concerns about its impacts on public policy. Lotteries are alleged to promote addictive gambling behavior, are a major source of illegal gambling, and result in lower-income households spending a disproportionate share of their income on tickets. Concerns that lotteries encourage family members to participate are also a problem, and some argue that state governments have an inherent conflict in their desire for increased lottery revenues and their responsibility to protect the public welfare.

For a long time, the principal argument in favor of adopting a lottery has been that it provides a new source of “painless” revenue, allowing states to expand their array of services without increasing taxes on middle-class and working class taxpayers. This dynamic has been particularly prevalent in the immediate post-World War II period, when many states were expanding their social safety nets to help a growing population of families with children and elderly citizens.

Nevertheless, this arrangement has proved brittle, and as the economy has improved, state budgets have atrophied. Many states have faced fiscal crises in recent years, and the need for new revenue streams has resurfaced as a major issue.

One consequence of this trend has been an increase in pressure to introduce state lotteries. In the past, a primary obstacle has been competition from neighboring states, which have an incentive to block the addition of a lottery so that they can continue to attract the bulk of the ticket buyers and the associated revenues. However, states such as Hawaii and Alaska, which do not have neighbors, can open a lottery without the risk of being swamped by ticket purchases from other states.

Although the villagers of Lottery, Tennessee have no reason to believe that their society will return to primitive times if they abandon ritual murder, they seem blind to the ways in which tradition can be perverted and exploited for evil purposes. Shirley Jackson’s story is a stark warning of the human capacity for violence, especially when it is couched in an appeal to tradition or social order. In the end, Tessie Hutchinson’s death is a tragedy for the entire community.