The Lottery and Its Morally Dubious History

The lottery is the most popular form of gambling in America, contributing billions to state coffers each year. It has a long history, dating back at least to the fifteenth century in the Low Countries where lotteries were used to build town fortifications and provide charity for the poor. They were widely regarded as a painless form of taxation. By the seventeenth century, when English lottery profits were used to pay for the rebuilding of Faneuil Hall in Boston and a battery of guns for the defense of Philadelphia, the practice had become very widespread.

In the nineteen-seventies, as income inequality widened and job security disappeared, state governments began to look to lotteries for ways to raise funds without upsetting their anti-tax electorates. In an era when state budgets were stretched thin by inflation and the costs of a growing military and the Vietnam War, lotteries were hailed as a way to provide a modest social safety net while keeping taxes down.

While Cohen explains how the lottery was born, it is his discussion of its modern incarnation that really gets the reader thinking. He argues that the modern lottery came about when growing awareness of all the money to be made in the business collided with state funding crises that could not be resolved by raising taxes or cutting services, both of which would have been unpopular with voters. The early lotteries were started by Northeast states with large social safety nets, he notes, which were willing to take the gamble that a lottery could generate enough revenue to get rid of taxes altogether.

One of the most illuminating examples of the lottery’s morally dubious nature comes from the short story “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson. In the story, a group of villagers holds a ritual murder lottery, in which they pick names out of a hat to kill one another. The participants are not only aware that what they are doing is wrong but they think that if it’s been done for centuries then it must be OK. It is this blind acceptance of evil that shows the true nature of human beings.

The story of the lottery illustrates the extent to which people’s dreams of unimaginable wealth can deceive them. It is an apt metaphor for the national delusion of our times, as we watch the gap between rich and poor widen, retirement and health-care costs rise, job security disappear, and our long-held national promise that hard work and education will allow children to do better than their parents dies out in the real world. By promoting the dream of instant wealth, the lottery is feeding people’s greed while obscuring the real reasons why it should be banned.