In the United States, people spend billions of dollars every year on the lottery. Many play it for fun while others believe that they can win a life of wealth and luxury. The odds of winning are very low, but the lottery is a popular pastime in many states. Many state governments use the proceeds from the lottery to fund various programs and services, including education, health, and welfare. The lottery is also a powerful political tool that can be used to promote specific public policies and issues, including social issues.
Cohen argues that the modern lottery originated in the nineteen-sixties, when growing awareness of the money to be made in gambling collided with a crisis in state funding. Across America, a swelling population and the cost of the Vietnam War were draining government coffers. For some states, especially those that had a generous social safety net, it became increasingly difficult to balance the budget without either raising taxes or cutting services. The lottery proved to be an attractive and relatively painless way for state governments to boost revenues.
When the lottery first came to America, it was a common means of raising funds for a variety of purposes, including building town fortifications and providing charity for the poor. The lottery’s success was due in part to its acceptance by Protestant colonists, despite strict Protestant proscriptions against gambling. It was also a means of financing colonization by England, and of spreading English culture into the colonies.
In the seventeenth century, it became common for European countries to hold lotteries. The Dutch state-owned Staatsloterij is the oldest running lottery (1726). Its popularity was based on the promise of money, which could be used to buy anything from land to slaves. These lotteries were hailed as a “painless” form of taxation, and they quickly spread throughout the world.
A central theme in The Lottery is the human capacity to act cruelly in the face of group pressure. What is the root of this cruelty, and how does it manifest itself in the story? The story also explores the role of class differences in society. How does class affect the participants’ behavior?
In the end, The Lottery is a story about covetousness. It is the human desire to possess things that are not one’s own, and to place an inordinate value on them. Lottery participants are prone to covet money and the things that money can buy, and God forbids this kind of behavior in Exodus 20:17. This is a lesson that all of us should keep in mind. The truth is that money is a finite resource, and it is not a magic bullet that can solve all problems. People must learn to live with a degree of modesty and contentment with the possessions they have. Only then can they truly experience the joy of a rich life. -Edgar J. Cohen, American University, Washington, D.C., and author of “The State Lottery and the Problem of Moral Evil” (University of Chicago Press, 2018). Reprinted with permission from the publisher.