Is the Lottery Promoting a Vice?

Is the Lottery Promoting a Vice?

Throughout history, people have been drawn to lottery as a way to acquire property or cash. A number of ancient societies used lotteries to distribute land and other goods among their citizens, and in modern times, governments use lotteries to raise money for a variety of projects. Many states have laws regulating the sale of lottery tickets, and the winners are paid the prize money by check or other form of payment. Regardless of the state’s regulations, all lottery winners must sign a statement acknowledging that they are aware of the risks involved in playing the lottery.

When Shirley Jackson’s chilling 1948 story “The Lottery” appeared in The New Yorker, it generated more letters to the editor than any other work of fiction in the magazine’s history. Readers were furious, disgusted, occasionally curious and almost uniformly bewildered. In part, this was due to the fact that The New Yorker did not at that time identify works of fiction as such, and that readers were still reeling from World War II.

However, a more significant reason for the public’s hysteria was that Jackson’s tale touched on an area of human life that is universally deplorable: the willingness of some people to engage in horrific behavior in the name of some supposed higher good. Jackson showed that evil is not only possible, but that it can be committed in a friendly and seemingly normal setting.

Governments are not above promoting vice, and they are certainly not above using the lottery to promote it. The major argument for governmental support of the lottery is that it provides a painless source of tax revenue—taxes are paid only by those who play, and they are voluntary taxes (as opposed to direct taxes levied upon the general population).

In addition, the prizes offered in a lottery can be very attractive to the average consumer, and, as with any product, there are certain demographic groups that are more prone to participate than others. The bulk of lottery players and winners come from middle-income neighborhoods, while low-income individuals play at much lower rates than their percentage of the population.

It’s not unreasonable to ask whether a state should be in the business of promoting a vice—especially one as dangerous as gambling, which is addictive and can drain families of their assets. But the answer to that question is not easy. It depends, in part, on how important it is to a state that it have sufficient money to pay for its services and, at the same time, maintain its attractiveness to voters. For a nation as large and wealthy as the United States, this is a tall order. Nonetheless, states continue to promote the lottery as a solution to these dilemmas. And, for the most part, people continue to buy lottery tickets. This despite the overwhelming evidence that the odds of winning are stacked against them. And, sadly, even those who do win often end up bankrupt in a very short period of time.