The Lottery and Its Regulations


The lottery is one of the few remaining government-sponsored forms of gambling in which people actually buy tickets, even though it offers a relatively small chance of winning a big prize. And because of that, it is a very difficult form of gambling to regulate. It is also a source of great wealth for some people, and an opportunity to support a variety of public services. Nevertheless, most state governments have opted to restrict the sale of lotteries. In some cases, a lottery is prohibited entirely; in others, the amount of money that can be won is limited.

In the United States, lotteries are regulated by federal law and by state statute. Those laws vary, but in general they are designed to ensure that the prizes are reasonable and that the money raised is used for legitimate purposes. State governments can also set their own rules for how to conduct the lottery and how to distribute the proceeds.

In Europe, lotteries date back to ancient times. They were used for both party games at Roman Saturnalias, where guests could win extravagant prizes, and as a way to divine God’s will (see this story on the stoning of a woman in biblical Israel). Lotteries were also common in colonial America, and they helped finance such projects as churches, canals, and bridges. Often, the proceeds were donated to public works, but a few lotteries also helped fund private ventures such as supplying a battery of guns for Philadelphia and rebuilding Faneuil Hall in Boston.

It’s no wonder that many people find the lottery exciting and addictive. The idea of a multimillion-dollar jackpot is enticing, especially when wages stagnated and health-care costs rose in the nineteen-seventies and eighties. For many working Americans, the national promise that education and hard work would guarantee a better life for their children began to seem like a fairy tale.

The story of the villagers in Shirley Jackson’s short story The Lottery illustrates how people tolerate evil acts, even when those acts are a part of their own culture. As the story unfolds, we see how the villagers accept Mr. Summers’s lottery arrangements, and the scapegoating of Mrs. Hutchison, despite her inability to explain why she deserved to die.

Rich people play the lottery, of course; one of the largest Powerball jackpots was won by three asset managers from Greenwich, Connecticut, in 2013. But on average, they spend a much smaller percentage of their income on tickets than do those who make less than fifty thousand dollars per year. That difference reflects the fact that, for the most part, rich people are more insulated from the effects of their own bad decisions.