The drawing of lots for the allocation of property, rights, slaves and other possessions has a long record in human history, beginning with Moses’ instructions to take a census and divide land among the Israelites, and continuing through Roman emperors giving away properties and slaves as part of Saturnalian feasts. In modern times, lotteries are an increasingly popular way for governments to raise money, and in some countries have become quite large, offering a number of small prizes in addition to one or more big ones.
The main argument that lottery advocates use to justify their support of the practice is that it provides a source of “painless” revenue, in which players voluntarily spend their money for the public good (as opposed to having it taken from them by taxes). This argument has proven to be powerful, and state legislatures have responded to it, adopting lotteries even when their states are financially healthy or in need of cutting back on spending.
In the short story, Jackson describes how people assemble for the lottery, beginning with children, who are the first to appear. They assemble in a clear-eyed manner, with no sense of deception or ulterior motives. They gather around a table that contains a box with slips of paper, each bearing a number, and they choose the numbers in the same way that they would pick out apples from a tree or eggs from a frying pan.
While people who play the lottery have an inextricable urge to gamble, they also know that the odds are against them. They may have quote-unquote systems about which store to shop at or which time of day to buy tickets, but they understand that the odds of winning are long. They also know that the money they spend isn’t actually going to benefit the “public” in any meaningful way, unless it is used to finance some semblance of a reputable education system.
Despite this, the lottery is a hugely profitable enterprise for its operators and has generated tremendous political pressure to increase its size and scope. The resulting expansions have typically increased the number of available games and, in many cases, have increased the size of the jackpot. In addition, the public is often persuaded to increase its participation by being promised a higher percentage of the prize pool in exchange for its increased contributions.
The problem with this strategy is that it is unsustainable. Eventually, the amount of money awarded in prizes will begin to diminish, as the number of winners dwindles while the total prize fund continues to rise. This will create a feedback loop, with the prize pool growing until it is too large to maintain the attractiveness of the game and then stagnating at a lower level. The only way to break this cycle is for the government to stop relying on the lottery as a source of “painless” revenues. Unfortunately, this will likely be a difficult proposition to achieve.