Lotteries, which involve a random drawing of tickets for prizes ranging from cash to property or services, are one of the most common forms of government revenue. They have a long history, dating back to ancient times. In the Roman Empire, Nero enjoyed playing them and they were used in biblical times for everything from determining the next king to who would keep Jesus’ garments after his Crucifixion. Throughout much of modern history, lottery games have been used by the government or licensed by it to raise money for all manner of public works and social programs. Despite their ubiquity and popularity, they are a source of controversy. They have been criticized for encouraging addiction, moral corruption, and even slavery. Yet in many states, lottery profits continue to fund public services such as education, roads, and welfare benefits.
In his book, Lottery: How the State Picks Our Winners, Daniel Cohen takes an in-depth look at the history of state-run lotteries. He points out that early American lotteries were largely a product of exigency; as the country expanded and became more populous, its citizens demanded an ever-growing array of public services. Moreover, state legislators were often unable to balance their budgets without raising taxes or cutting services, both of which are highly unpopular with voters. Thus, in the nineteenth century, state governments turned to lotteries as “budgetary miracles, the chance for states to make money appear seemingly out of thin air.”
By its nature, a lottery is addictive. In his book, Cohen argues that lottery profits are produced by “advertising and other promotional tactics designed to keep people buying tickets.” These tactics aren’t much different from those employed by the tobacco and video-game industries.
But, unlike other forms of gambling, which are illegal in some countries, the lottery is not. In the United States, there are forty-two lotteries operated by state governments, and the profits from them are used solely to fund government programs. The state-run lotteries operate a legal monopoly, and do not allow commercial lotteries to compete with them.
As a result, most Americans spend more than $52.6 billion annually on lotteries, which makes them the second largest form of gambling after horse racing. Despite this, few Americans understand how the lottery actually works or how it can be manipulated to generate large amounts of money.
The reason is simple. Most people do not want to admit that the lottery is a form of gambling, because it suggests that humans are inherently evil and greedy. The events described in Jackson’s novel illustrate how human evil is able to flourish in our everyday lives because we don’t think of it as anything other than a regular part of life. Jackson’s story also shows how people can do horrendous things to each other and just consider it normal. In the end, Jackson’s message is a warning that we must not lose sight of our humanity.