Cohen’s Lottery

Lottery is gambling, but not in the same sense as poker or horse racing. A lottery is a form of gambling in which tokens or numbers are drawn at random and prizes, usually cash, are awarded to the winners. In the US, state lotteries have been around for centuries, and they are often popular among Americans of all income levels. Some states have even used lotteries as a tool for raising public funds.

In the early days of American lotteries, the proceeds were often earmarked for specific public goods. This made them popular with Americans despite the fact that many of them had strict Protestant proscriptions against gambling. The first state lottery, operated in Massachusetts by Benjamin Franklin in 1745, raised money for cannons to defend the city from the British. Today, most state lotteries are ostensibly designed to benefit education and other “public goods,” so they enjoy broad public support.

But Cohen argues that modern state lotteries run at cross-purposes with the public interest. By promoting gambling, they encourage people to spend more of their income on tickets. And by relying heavily on advertising, they can be misleading to consumers. In addition, they create extensive and specialized constituencies that support the lottery business, including convenience store operators (who are able to purchase advertising space in state newspapers); lottery suppliers (whose executives contribute heavy sums to state political campaigns); teachers (who get accustomed to the additional revenue); and state legislators.

As a result, few states have a coherent “lottery policy.” Lotteries typically develop and evolve piecemeal, with little oversight or review by the legislature or executive branch. They often start with a small number of relatively simple games and then, under pressure for additional revenues, expand the size and complexity of their operations. This expansion, in turn, leads to a dependency on a cyclical source of income that the legislature and executive branch can neither control nor limit.

The story, told in a straightforward, observed manner, allows the reader to picture the scene with complete clarity. The villagers go about their business in a calm and unruffled manner, displaying no emotion at the drawing of the tickets. They even exchange bits of gossip while doing it, as if the lottery is just another part of their normal daily lives.

But the story also suggests that there is a deep, unspoken anger behind this seemingly innocuous activity. During the nineteen-sixties, when lottery fever ran high, the nation was facing a fiscal crisis due to inflation, a swelling population, and the cost of the Vietnam War. Many states, particularly those that had a generous social safety net, found it impossible to balance their budgets without increasing taxes or cutting services. In this environment, the lottery became the only popular means of generating new revenue that did not threaten these safety-net programs or burden working-class voters. In this context, the lottery’s obsession with the dream of unimaginable wealth seemed to echo the national mood: a growing sense that life was becoming a perpetual gamble with an elusive and intangible prize.