The earliest state-sponsored lotteries in Europe began to appear in the first half of the 15th century. Their name, drawn from the Dutch word lotinge “action of drawing lots,” suggests a link with the Old Testament practice of Moses’s census and division of land and Roman emperors’ distribution of property and slaves by lottery.
Lotteries appeal to people because they offer the chance of winning a large prize based on a process that depends entirely on chance. The chances of winning are so long that the disutility of a monetary loss is outweighed by the expected utility of a monetary gain—and, in many cases, some of the profits from lottery games go to charity.
As a result, there are no ethical objections to lottery play, Cohen writes. Lottery advocates argue that people are already gambling anyway, so it’s good for government to capture some of the proceeds.
But the lottery’s popularity is partly a reflection of economic conditions. The profits from the game grow when incomes decline and unemployment rise. It’s also the case that, as with all commercial products, advertising drives sales—and lotteries are heavily promoted in neighborhoods that are disproportionately poor, Black, and Latino.
This is one of the themes Shirley Jackson explores in her short story The Lottery. The setting is a small American town whose inhabitants follow old traditions and customs. In this village, family heads arrange to draw their lottery tickets—a number for each family—before the event begins. As they do so, they chat and banter. An elderly man quotes a traditional rhyme: “Lottery in June/Corn be heavy soon.”