The History of the Lottery

In the immediate post-World War II period, lotteries allowed states to expand their social safety nets without imposing especially onerous tax burdens on working and middle class voters. That arrangement lasted until inflation and the cost of the Vietnam War broke it apart. Since then, state governments have had to tinker with their gambling policies in search of new revenue sources. Lotteries are an attractive option because they involve a minimal investment of tax dollars and, if successful, can be quite lucrative.

The casting of lots has a long record in human history, as evidenced by examples from the Bible and Roman empire. But lottery-style betting on the outcome of events, in order to acquire a material prize, is relatively modern. Lotteries have proven popular for raising money for many different purposes, including public projects and even settling estates.

In this story, we see an ancient tradition of the lottery as it continues in a small rural town. As the villagers gather for The Lottery, they chat and exchange bits of gossip. One elderly man, something of a patriarch, is not at all pleased with the way things are going. He quotes a little traditional rhyme, “Lottery in June/Corn will be heavy soon.”

The Lottery is the classic example of the pitfalls of allowing government at any level to manage an activity from which it profits. The initial advocates of legalized gambling in America promoted a lottery as a silver bullet for state budgets. No longer able to argue that the lottery would float all of a state’s expenses, they focused on a single line item – usually education, but also elder care, public parks or aid for veterans – that was popular and nonpartisan.