When a lottery is held, a great many people purchase tickets. A few win big, while most lose. The winners are those who have the highest expected utility, that is, those for whom the value of a monetary gain outweighs the negative utilitarian effects of the loss they would otherwise experience. To maximize their utility, those who play the lottery will engage in a number of strategies, ranging from buying only one ticket when the jackpot gets high to buying a lot of tickets and hoping for multiple winnings. But there is an even more important reason to avoid the lottery: its corrosive effect on our sense of fairness.
During the nineteen-sixties, the American lottery boom coincided with a severe state funding crisis. As the cost of public education, health care, and welfare benefits skyrocketed, states found it increasingly difficult to balance their budgets without raising taxes or cutting services, both of which were overwhelmingly unpopular with voters. In response, a growing number of states began to use the lottery as a source of revenue, and their popularity increased accordingly.
Like most forms of gambling, the lottery is not a neutral activity; it is designed to be addictive and irrational. But its appeal is fueled by our basic human urge to take risks, and it can be exploited by predatory marketers and unscrupulous promoters. Lottery advertising, for instance, often uses fear to elicit responses from the vulnerable, such as by suggesting that lottery winnings will be confiscated from those who don’t participate. The fear of losing is thus a powerful driver of lottery participation, and the odds of winning are manipulated by drawing large prizes and offering small amounts in return.
While most Americans claim to have an aversion to taxation, lotteries are particularly prone to fiscal instability. When state revenues slump, lottery sales rise, as they do when unemployment increases or poverty rates spike. Lottery advertising is also heavily concentrated in neighborhoods that are disproportionately poor, black, or Latino. In short, the lottery is a tool of inequality that feeds on our deepest anxieties and vulnerabilities.
The story of Old Man Warner and the villagers of that New Hampshire town illustrates some of the problems with the lottery, but it also offers a window into how we can accept evil and cruelty as a part of everyday life. We see this same phenomenon in the anti-gay hysteria of McCarthyism or in the sexism of cancel culture.
In fact, the history of the lottery is littered with examples of these kinds of perverse perversions. In early America, for example, lotteries were tangled up with the slave trade; George Washington managed a Virginia lottery whose prizes included human beings, and a formerly enslaved man won the South Carolina lottery and used the prize money to foment a slave rebellion. Despite their illegitimacy, these abuses strengthened the arguments of opponents and weakened those in support of the lottery. Eventually, however, the arguments of the lottery’s defenders won out, and state-run lotteries came to dominate the nation’s gambling industry.