A lottery is an ancient pastime, used in Roman times-Nero was a fan-and throughout the history of Christianity. It involves throwing lots, a random process that can be manipulated for many purposes from determining the winner of a beauty pageant to divining God’s will. Lotteries also have long been a popular means of raising money for public projects. As states seek ways to avoid raising taxes or cutting social programs in an era of ever-increasing deficits, lottery proponents argue that it’s a painless form of taxation.
The principal argument is that a lottery generates “voluntary” revenue from players who are willing to spend their own money on the chance of winning a large prize. This is an appealing concept, particularly in times of economic stress, when voters are wary of the idea of paying higher taxes or losing their government services. But research shows that the popularity of lotteries is unrelated to a state’s objective fiscal health, and that politicians tend to promote them even when the government’s finances are sound.
In a world where we are obsessed with the concept of instant wealth and the fantasy of multimillion-dollar jackpots, the lottery offers people an opportunity to feel like they’ve won the big one, to get their name in the news. But these lottery games can be deceptive, with the odds of winning published on the ticket and often inflated to exaggerate how much the prize really is (the top prizes are paid in annual installments over 20 years, with inflation dramatically eroding the value); and the ads often target lower-income neighborhoods with misleading information about their chances of winning.
Ultimately, though, the biggest problem with lotteries is not that they encourage irrational gambling behavior or target low-income neighborhoods, but rather that they are a symbol of our culture’s growing distrust of the institutions of society and its faith in the American dream, including job security, pensions, and healthcare, all of which are eroding as income inequality widens, retirement ages rise, and the national promise that education and hard work will guarantee a better life for our children becomes less credible. Lotteries are an ugly underbelly of this distrust, a way for people to believe that, somehow, their longshot might be the lucky one.
As for the villagers in the narrator’s story, they may not have won the lottery that killed someone, but they will never stop playing. They have reached a point in their lives where they will continue to play, because it is what they have always done and because it brings them joy. But if they stopped playing, they would lose something important to them. They wouldn’t be them anymore. The only way to be them is to keep playing, to continue to believe that this is their town, and that they have a shot at a better life. And so they do, until the next drawing. And then the next, and the next. The narrator’s voice fades, and the final image is of a man lying dead on the ground.