Lottery, the game in which players pay for a ticket and then hope that their numbers match those randomly spit out by machines, is an industry worth over $80 billion a year. It is also a game that, by its nature, tends to be highly regressive. People who buy tickets are often from the 21st to 60th percentiles of the income distribution – they have discretionary money but maybe not enough to get them out of poverty or give them opportunities for the American dream, or even to avoid racking up credit card debt. And if they do happen to win, it is often just the beginning of a long slide into bankruptcy and personal ruin.
The lottery is a powerful force for evil, but one that we have been taught to ignore. The reason is that it is marketed to us as something virtuous and fun, as a way of helping the poor. This is an extremely misleading message. The reality is that the lottery is a form of exploitation. And if we are going to continue to spend this much on it, we should understand what is really happening.
There is an element of truth to this claim – the lottery has been used in the past to help the poor, but it was usually in the form of a subsidized housing unit or a spot in a good public school. These are not things that a society based on empathy should be supporting, but they were part of the American dream at least until the nineteen-sixties, when America’s prosperity began to wane and people realized that the national promise of wealth from hard work and education could not keep pace with rising inflation and health-care costs.
In colonial America, for example, the lottery was a popular source of financing for both private and public projects. It helped fund the building of roads, libraries, churches, and colleges, including Princeton and Columbia. It also financed the militia and the French and Indian War expeditions.
But it was also a get-out-of-jail-free card, literally; participants were exempt from arrest for crimes such as murder and treason (Jackson 1). This is the true evil of the lottery.
In the modern world, lottery commissions aren’t above exploiting the psychology of addiction. Every detail, from the look of the ticket to the math behind the odds, is designed to keep people coming back for more. This is not so different from what tobacco companies and video-game makers do. But it is done under state sanction, and carries with it all the moral ambiguity of government action.