What is a Lottery?


A lottery is a contest in which a prize is given away at random. People can play a lottery for cash or goods. It can be state-run or private. The word “lottery” is probably derived from Middle Dutch lotere, which itself may be a calque of the French word Loterie, which means action or process of drawing lots. Lottery can also refer to the use of chance for other purposes such as selecting members of a jury or determining the order of admission to public schools.

Lotteries have been around for centuries. In fact, the very first state-sponsored lottery was established in England in 1569. During the colonial era, it was common for public and private ventures to be financed partially by lotteries. In the 17th and 18th centuries, lottery games became popular even in colonies whose Protestant leaders had strictly forbidden gambling. The lottery was one of the earliest ways that European settlement of America was financed, and it was a key part of American culture until Congress passed a law prohibiting interstate transportation of lottery tickets in 1890.

Shirley Jackson’s story “The Lottery” portrays a small village in which everyone takes part in the lottery, a ritual that is believed to be sanctioned by God. Despite the protests of Mrs. Hutchinson, the town carries on with this tradition. The story can be seen as a criticism of modern capitalist societies in which social stratification and class distinctions are rigidly enforced. The character of Old Man Summers, the master of the lottery, illustrates a corrupt and ruthless element within such systems.

The villager’s names, such as Adams, Graves, and Hutchinson, also suggest the way in which social classes are viewed by this society. The last name of Hutchinson, which resembles a cross, suggests a biblical reference to the commandment to judge not, lest we be judged (Matthew 7:1). In addition, the final complaint of Mrs. Hutchinson that the lottery “isn’t fair” suggests a Christian interpretation of the biblical teaching: “Ye shall reap what ye sow” (Galatians 6:7).

A lottery’s costs and benefits can be difficult to assess because of the lack of hard data available on the subject. In the case of a state lottery, there are many variables to consider, such as the amount of money being spent by out-of-state residents and the multiplier effect on local businesses. A cost-benefit analysis of a lottery is also complicated by the fact that the benefits are often not measurable in dollars, but in terms of improved public welfare and quality of life. It may be impossible to quantify the value of a lottery’s impact on an individual’s quality of life, but it can be estimated using the principles of social science research. The author of this article is a senior analyst with the nonprofit Institute for New Economic Thinking in Washington, D.C. She is an expert in the economic analysis of social issues. She holds a Ph.D. in political science from the University of Colorado at Boulder.

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