A lottery is a process for allocating something that is in limited supply but in high demand, like kindergarten placement or units in a subsidized housing block. It is also a type of gambling in which participants bet a small sum for the chance to win a larger prize. There are many types of lotteries, from those that award prizes based on random drawings to those that dish out cash to paying participants. These are often called financial lotteries and help fund public projects, such as the Sydney Opera House or the New York City subway system.
The word “lottery” comes from the Dutch word for “fate,” but it’s an idea that stretches back through history to ancient times, at least according to the Oxford English Dictionary. It’s an idea rooted in the fact that people like to gamble. But it’s also an idea that has a deeper, less obvious significance. The way the lottery operates is a great example of how cultural beliefs can be irrational, even when they are engrained in our subconscious.
Cohen’s book centers around Tessie, a middle-aged housewife who’s always late for The Lottery, which is celebrated on the second Wednesday of each month at her church. In this ritual, the heads of each family draw a folded slip of paper from a box. If one of the slips is marked with a black spot, everyone must draw again for another chance. There’s no reason that any particular set of numbers should be luckier than the others, other than the fact that it may be more recently drawn. But the villagers don’t question The Lottery or see it as being in any way irrational. They believe that it’s just the way things have always been done, and anyone who tries to change it is seen as a crazy fool.
During the nineteen-sixties, the lottery started to boom in America as state governments grappled with a growing deficit that threatened to cripple their social safety net. To balance the budget, states would have to increase taxes or cut services, and the latter was wildly unpopular with voters. In this era of tax revolt, Cohen writes, the lottery looked like a “budgetary miracle,” an opportunity for states to raise money seemingly out of thin air without angering their constituents.
But as time went by, it became increasingly clear that the odds of winning the lottery were not decreasing, and in some cases were actually increasing. In other words, Alexander Hamilton’s wisdom turned out to be right: the average person cared little about the difference between one-in-three million odds and two-in-five million. And so the lottery kept growing, as did its contribution to America’s regressive tax code. Then, in the 1980s, things changed. The lottery moved away from a message focused on the game’s fun and excitement, and began to emphasize its social utility, as well. It’s a shift that, Cohen argues, has obscured the regressive nature of the lottery and blinded Americans to how much they are playing it for.