The casting of lots has a long history, including several instances in the Bible. But the modern lottery, as Cohen explains it, came into existence when growing awareness of the money to be made in gambling collided with the need for states to balance budgets without raising taxes or cutting essential services. This was especially true in the post-World War II period, when population growth and inflation combined to put increasing strain on state finances.
The solution was to adopt a lottery. The idea worked well enough that now nearly every state has one and the revenue is vital to fund a variety of government programs. It is also the source of a great deal of controversy, both over its social consequences and whether it is appropriate for a state to promote gambling.
In the beginning, lotteries were essentially traditional raffles, with tickets sold for a drawing at some future date. But innovations in the 1970s led to a dramatic transformation of the industry. Now most lotteries are run like businesses, with advertising aimed at persuading people to spend their money in order to win a prize. And this has a profound effect on the society in which we live.
The most important aspect of the lottery’s impact on society is its ability to capture and channel “inarticulate dissatisfaction with social life,” a tendency that is particularly strong among the poor. Indeed, the lottery has become an ideological mechanism that serves to deflect this anger toward the victims of society and away from its own complicity in the problems it creates.
For example, the lottery can be viewed as a vehicle for Tessie Hutchinson’s rebellion against suburban conformity in Shirley Jackson’s short story, “The Lottery.” When she arrives late to the lotto, she is perceived as showing contempt for her peers and revealing an unwillingness to accept the social norms that are the foundation of her life. In fact, Jackson suggests that Tessie’s rebellion is actually a cover for her own sense of inadequacy in the face of a world in which she feels she has no chance of success.
In addition, the way in which the lottery is promoted often has negative consequences for the poor and problem gamblers. It is not always clear whether this is a deliberate strategy on the part of the state or simply the result of a business model that relies on attracting low-income and problem gamblers. Nevertheless, the state has an obligation to make sure its policies are working well in practice and are not being exploited by private interests. Moreover, the public’s perception of lotteries is often distorted by a misplaced emphasis on their potential for good, and the state must take care not to confuse its image with those of reputable companies. For these reasons, many scholars have criticized the lottery for its negative social impacts. However, others argue that it is the only possible option for a state seeking to raise revenue in a difficult economic climate.