How Far Should the State Go to Profit From the Lottery?

The lottery is a game in which people pay to participate, select groups of numbers, have those numbers randomly spit out by machines, and win prizes if enough of those numbers match. The game has a long history of legal and illegal forms, and it can be used for many purposes, from determining the winners of sporting events to awarding financial aid to college students. During the nineteen sixties, however, growing awareness of how much money there was to be made by running lotteries collided with a crisis in state finances. With inflation, population growth, and war costs adding up, the cost of maintaining the social safety net became prohibitively expensive. State governments began to face the unenviable choice of raising taxes or cutting services, both of which would be politically toxic to voters.

In an effort to avoid these unpleasant options, some states turned to the lottery for help. As with any gambling enterprise, lotteries need a steady stream of revenue to thrive. To maximize revenues, they promote the games as a source of “painless” state income—a notion that plays well with antitax sentiments and with politicians who want to increase their share of the pie. So states legislate a monopoly for themselves; establish state agencies or public corporations to run the lotteries (rather than licensing private firms in return for a portion of the profits); begin with a modest number of relatively simple games; and, under pressure for additional revenues, gradually expand the scope of the lotteries with new offerings.

Despite the fact that the odds of winning are always one in several million, the popularity of lotteries continues to rise. This is largely due to the massive jackpots that can be won, which often exceed the value of the individual tickets. In order to keep up with the increasing demand, lottery commissioners have been experimenting with different strategies to make the chances of winning even more difficult. One of these is by reducing the number of balls in a given drawing. The idea is that if the odds are too high, people won’t bother playing, while if the odds are too low, they won’t be enough of a challenge to attract participants.

Whether the lottery is being used for good or for evil, its existence raises the question of how far the state should go to profit from a form of gambling that is known to have negative consequences. The story “Lottery” reveals that even the most benevolent of societies can be cruel. It shows how easy it is for individuals to lose sight of their moral responsibilities and do things that are not in their best interests. Jackson uses casual references and the everyday setting of a rural village to convey how people can be deceitful and evil in their day-to-day lives. The result is a powerful and poignant story that should be read and remembered.