The History of the Lottery

Lottery is an arrangement in which prizes, especially money, are allocated to participants by a process that relies entirely on chance. The practice is believed to be of considerable antiquity, with references to it appearing in the Old Testament (Moses was instructed to take a census and divide land among Israelites by lot), in Greek literature, and even in Roman history when lottery-like games were popular during Saturnalian feasts. The practice also appears in China, where records of “keno slips” from the Han dynasty in the 2nd millennium BC have been found.

In the United States, state-sponsored lotteries have been in operation since New Hampshire launched the first one in 1964. The game’s success led to its adoption by New York in 1966 and by 10 more states by 1975. Currently, 37 states and the District of Columbia operate lotteries. In fact, there are more lottery tickets sold in the US than in any other form of gambling. And a major reason why is that the jackpots on these games are so huge that they draw attention and generate a great deal of excitement, which, in turn, stimulates ticket sales.

The rationality of purchasing a lottery ticket depends on the combined expected utility of monetary and non-monetary gain. If an individual can be certain that they will gain enough entertainment value from playing to outweigh the negative disutility of a potential monetary loss, then their purchase will be a rational decision. However, many people do not realize their actual chances of winning and continue buying tickets, even though the likelihood of a big payout is slim to none.

For politicians struggling to maintain essential services without raising taxes, the lottery has offered the promise of a budgetary miracle. As a result, governments around the country have embraced the game as an easy way to raise money without upsetting voters. In a time when citizens are accustomed to low prices and have little tolerance for higher tax rates, a lottery may be the only way for a politician to increase spending without incurring voter wrath.

Shirley Jackson’s story “The Lottery” presents a society that seems to be based on tradition, with all the good and bad that it entails. The characters in the story greet each other, exchange gossip and manhandle each other, demonstrating that these customs are as natural to humankind as their evil-nature. In addition to displaying the power of tradition, this short story also points out the hypocrisy of some individuals. It also shows how oppressive cultures deem hopes of liberalization futile. This reflects the reality that most of the time, the only way to change people’s beliefs is through force. But is it really worth the effort?