The Ugly Underbelly of the Lottery

The article opens in a small village in which everybody is gathered around to celebrate an annual lottery event. The villagers are finishing their daily chores but are all in high spirits. It becomes clear that they are gathered under the leadership of the powerful and mysterious Mr Summer who seems to be in charge of all their important affairs including the lottery results.

He is a man of many facets and talents and this particular activity seems to be one of his fancies. This seems to be his way of bringing some excitement to the otherwise dull and mundane life in this place. However, there is also an ugly underbelly to this whole affair that reveals itself when we look deeper into the details of this bizarre ritual.

Lotteries are as old as humankind, attested to in the Bible and used by the Roman Empire (Nero was a fan), where they were sometimes deployed as party games during Saturnalia feasts. In early America, private lotteries flourished, despite Protestant proscriptions against gambling, and public ones were established to raise money for schools and other projects. (George Washington once managed a lottery whose prizes included human beings, and an enslaved man won one and went on to foment a slave rebellion.)

The modern lottery started in 1964 with New Hampshire, which was the first state to introduce a state-run version of it. It soon spread throughout the country, inspiring other states to do the same, and today there are 37 state-run lotteries and a handful of national ones. The arguments for and against state-run lotteries are remarkably similar across the country. Voters like them because they feel that they are a source of painless revenue—that is, they allow state governments to spend money without having to raise taxes or cut services.