What Are We Paying For When We Play the Lottery?

A popular form of gambling, lottery contributes billions to state budgets. It also plays a key role in America’s national culture, with the winning numbers broadcast on television and emblazoned on everything from baseball bats to ketchup bottles. But what are we really paying for when we purchase a ticket? In a book about the history of lottery, the journalist Stephen Cohen argues that this game’s popularity in modern times coincided with a decline in economic security for most working Americans. The nineteen-seventies and eighties, he writes, saw income inequality grow, pension and health care benefits disappear, government debt rise, and the American dream that a steady job and hard work would lead to a secure retirement and a good education for children deteriorate. To many voters, it seemed as though life was just like the lottery—in which you could win big and lose big.

Lotteries have been around for centuries, from the Old Testament’s instruction to Moses to divide the land by lot to Roman emperors who used them to give away property and slaves. The lottery was brought to the United States by British colonists, and its early reception was mixed. Some states banned it altogether, and others adopted it as a way to raise money for public works, including the construction of churches and colleges.

In the late twentieth century, however, the morality of the lottery started to erode, he says, as Americans’ aversion to taxation increased. In a climate where the nation was deeply indebted and unemployment was rising, politicians found it increasingly difficult to balance state budgets without raising taxes or cutting services—both of which were extremely unpopular with voters. Lottery advocates began to sell the games less as a silver bullet and more as a means of financing a single line item, usually education but sometimes elder care or aid for veterans. The goal was to make lottery support seem nonpartisan and therefore politically safe.

The villagers’ blind acceptance of the lottery allows ritual murder to become a part of their town fabric. Their behavior has the feel of a carnival ride, with the participants believing they are taking part in an innocent game. But even though they know it is a lottery for murder, the villagers are unable to change their ways.

The villagers’ attitudes toward the lottery are, in large part, driven by fear. They fear that if they stop holding the lottery, their world will collapse and they’ll return to primitive times. They also believe that the lottery is their only chance to improve their lives. The story’s ugly underbelly, as Cohen points out, is that we often rationalize irrational behavior with appeals to tradition or social order. The villagers’ refusal to see the lottery for what it is—a game of death—reminds us that if we aren’t careful, we may find ourselves in a world in which violence isn’t only possible but inevitable.