The Dark Underbelly of the Lottery


The lottery is a popular pastime, a form of gambling in which tickets are sold and prizes are awarded based on a random drawing. It is a major source of revenue for many states, and its popularity is driven by the prospect of winning a substantial sum with a relatively low risk. But the lottery also has a dark underbelly. It can be used to incentivize violence, even murder, against those who are seen as threats to the status quo or to social order. This is illustrated by the plot of a New Yorker story called “The Lottery,” which centers around an upcoming lottery that may result in the stoning to death of one town resident.

The story begins with a family gathering to draw their lottery slips. An elderly man, something of a patriarch in the community, is quoted as expressing disapproval of the event. But the other families in the village are determined to continue with the ritual.

After all, they have been doing it for generations and see no reason to change. The story’s final twist, however, reveals that the purpose of the lottery is to select a woman from among the village members and stone her to death. This is the dark underside of the exercise, and it highlights a fundamental problem with lottery promotion: While there are no explicit messages about violence, people are encouraged to gamble not just for money but as a way to advance a sense of community or even to get rid of a resentful or annoying relative.

In fact, the concept of lotteries dates back to ancient times. There is a reference to keno in the Chinese Book of Songs (2nd millennium BC), and the casting of lots to determine fates and decisions has a long history, with examples ranging from the selection of emperors during Roman Saturnalia parties to choosing who gets Jesus’ clothes after his Crucifixion. In modern times, state-sponsored lotteries have a long record as fundraising tools for municipal projects, but they have also become a popular recreational activity for their own sake.

To keep ticket sales robust, states must offer a significant percentage of the total pool as prizes. The cost of organizing and promoting the lotteries must be deducted from this total, as must a proportionate share for profits and taxes. The balance is often divided between a few large prizes and a larger number of smaller ones.

Despite this, the lottery is not seen as a tax by most consumers. As a result, its promotional activities are at cross-purposes with the goals of state government, which use its proceeds for things like education and public works. Moreover, the implicit message to be gleaned from lottery advertising is that, regardless of whether you win or lose, you’re doing your civic duty as a citizen to buy a ticket. This is not an argument that holds up very well. The lottery is a powerful, multibillion-dollar industry, and it is no stranger to criticism from those who object to its implicit promotion of gambling.