The Lottery As a Government-Sponsored Addiction

The lottery is a big business that sells the fantasy of instant wealth. The slick ads, the flashy tickets, the simple math—everything about it is designed to keep people addicted. And it’s no different from the strategies used by tobacco companies or video-game manufacturers. But the lottery is unusually pernicious because it’s a government-sponsored addiction. It’s a form of gambling with the veneer of legitimacy and is used by many governments and states to raise money for everything from roads to education to prisons.

The history of lotteries dates back centuries, with the Old Testament instructing Moses to take a census of Israel and divide up land by lot, and Roman emperors using them as party favors, giving away property or slaves. They spread to England and America and were hailed as a painless form of taxation, allowing for the building of Harvard, Yale, Dartmouth, King’s College (now Columbia), and dozens of other American colleges.

In Jackson’s story, the villagers blindly accept the lottery as part of their community and have no reason to think that they will be worse off without it. In fact, they think they will return to primitive times without it. It is this blind acceptance that makes the lottery so sinister; it is a way of making sense of a violent, inhumane, and random act.

Similarly, the state lottery has been marketed as a silver bullet to solve statewide budget crises, when rising inflation and the cost of the Vietnam War began to strain state finances. But as the nineteen-sixties wore on and the middle class began to disappear, it became clear that a lottery would not fund everything that a state needed, even if it did float some line items. So legalization advocates changed their pitch. Rather than argue that the lottery would finance most of a state’s budget, they began to claim that it would pay for a single line item, invariably something popular and nonpartisan—education, elder care, public parks, or aid for veterans.

This narrower argument has the advantage of sounding a lot less like gambling and more like charitable giving, and it has become the predominant approach to the lottery in recent decades. The problem is that this shift, which has accompanied declining economic security for most working people, has created a false alternative to the national promise that hard work and ingenuity could provide a decent living for a family and a modest retirement for the retiree. Now the big question is whether the lottery can be reshaped to address this new reality, or will it prove to be one more empty promise? The answer may hinge on the future of the middle class. As it shrinks, the lottery will become increasingly toxic to the health of our democracy. And that’s a risk we can’t afford to take. – John Avlon, The Daily Beast