The lottery is the largest form of gambling in the world, raising billions a year. It is promoted as a way to help struggling families. And indeed, a lot of people do buy tickets with the hope that they will be one of the lucky few to win big. But there’s a deeper issue here. Lottery games dangle the promise of instant wealth in an age of inequality and limited social mobility. And the odds of winning are low enough to make it rational for most people to spend money on a ticket.
The short story The Lottery by Shirley Jackson takes place in a remote American village. The people follow outdated traditions and rituals blindly. They don’t even remember why they do it and keep on doing it. This story illustrates a common human problem: the blind following of traditions, rituals and customs, regardless of whether they have any sense of meaning or purpose.
In the sixteenth century, towns in the Low Countries began to hold public lotteries, drawing tickets with monetary prizes to raise money for town fortifications and charity. But it wasn’t until the late-twentieth century that states adopted the idea, in their quest to solve fiscal crises without enraging their tax-averse electorates. The first state-run lotteries were promoted as a way to help poor people, but they soon found broad appeal, especially in the South and West. They grew so popular that by the early twenty-first century, many states were spending 2% of their budgets on them.