The lottery is an enormously popular form of gambling. Its history stretches back millennia, with evidence of early lotteries dating to the Chinese Han dynasty (205–187 BC) and, according to Cohen, the first public lottery to distribute prize money was held in Bruges, Belgium, in 1466. Lotteries have a broad public appeal; the initial odds are astronomical, and people feel as though they deserve to be rich, so playing them is a reasonable choice for most.
The lottery, like all forms of gambling, raises a variety of issues that can be divided into two categories: the social and the economic. The social issues revolve around the impact on individual families, and in particular, on poor, working class households. The economic issues, on the other hand, center on the general social contract between state and citizen. Whether the lottery is a good thing depends on whether or not it provides a net benefit to society as a whole, and this is a difficult question to answer because there are many factors at play in a lottery’s success.
Historically, lottery revenue has been used for a variety of purposes, from funding major government projects (such as the Great Wall of China) to raising funds for municipal repairs in Rome and the Low Countries. The lottery has also become a popular fundraising mechanism for non-governmental organizations such as churches, charities, and private foundations. Its popularity has given rise to a new generation of “commercialized” lotteries that offer games such as video poker and keno.
Advocates of the lottery, however, tend to focus on its social and entertainment value and ignore the economic issues. They argue that the utility of monetary winnings outweighs the disutility of losing, and they point to the fact that lottery sales increase as incomes decline, unemployment rises, and poverty rates increase. These arguments obscure the fact that, as with all commercial products, lottery sales are regressive, with poor, black, and Latino neighborhoods being the most heavily promoted locations for lottery advertising.
In his short story, “The Lottery,” the author describes a family gathering on Lottery Day. At this event, the head of each household draws a slip of paper from a box with a number marked on it. The person with the number wins a prize, and everyone else gets to watch and enjoy. The story is a parable that suggests the lottery’s corrupting influence. It suggests that when we have a strong enough desire for something, we will sacrifice other things in order to get it, even if those other things are fundamental to our well-being. The story underscores the moral and ethical complexities of the lottery. Despite the fact that this act violates human nature, it continues to be practiced with little or no concern for its negative effects on the lives of those involved. This is indicative of the way in which oppressive norms and cultures deem hopes of liberalization worth the price of continuing to suffer.