Lottery is the act of drawing lots to decide a prize. It has a long history, from the biblical use of lot to determine the fates of men and women in war to the modern financial lottery where people buy tickets for chances to win money or goods. People also participate in sporting lotteries, where the winners are determined by a combination of skill and luck. In early America, lotteries were a popular form of public funding for everything from municipal repairs to public buildings, and they even helped finance the European settlement of America in spite of Protestant proscriptions against gambling.
Historically, state lotteries have operated much like traditional raffles. The public pays a fee to purchase tickets for a future drawing, typically weeks or months away, and the winner is determined by the numbers that appear on their ticket. The success of the financial lotteries of the 1970s, however, prompted innovation in the form of instant games such as scratch-off tickets, where winnings were based on a smaller group of numbers or numbers drawn by machines rather than an overall percentage of the total number of tickets sold. These innovations created a new problem: when ticket sales peaked, revenues began to stagnate or decline, necessitating a constant introduction of new games in an effort to stimulate and maintain interest.
There is an inextricable human desire to gamble, and the fact that lotteries promise big prizes can appeal to this impulse. But the truth is that the vast majority of people who play the lottery are not wealthy. In fact, the bulk of lottery players and revenues come from neighborhoods that are disproportionately low-income and minority. Moreover, much of the promotional material for the lottery is misleading, with claims that the odds of winning are amazingly good and inflating the value of a prize that will be paid in installments over many years, with taxes and inflation dramatically eroding its current value.
The short story The Lottery by Shirley Jackson illustrates some of the problems with allowing tradition to govern our lives. In this piece of fiction, the villagers gather around an old man who quotes a traditional rhyme: “Lottery in June/Corn will be heavy soon.”
The old man’s refusal to change the pattern of tradition is what makes the story compelling and shows how powerless we can become to overturn traditions that seem so entrenched. But the story also reveals how tradition can have negative effects, such as in this case, making people miserable. It is important to take a look at how traditions can affect our lives, and this is one of the best examples that I have seen. This short story is well worth reading, so go ahead and read it! And make sure to leave your thoughts in the comments section! Thanks for visiting! I look forward to hearing from you. -James R. Cohen, Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of Colorado, Boulder