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The History of the Lottery

The casting of lots to determine fates or distributions of property has a long record in human history, including several instances in the Bible and the use by Roman emperors as a form of entertainment during Saturnalian feasts. The modern lottery has its roots in the Low Countries in the 15th century, when towns began to hold public lotteries to raise money for town fortifications and help the poor. Lotteries became an integral part of colonial-era American society, with Benjamin Franklin sponsoring a lottery to buy cannons for the defense of Philadelphia and Thomas Jefferson holding a private lottery to ease his crushing debts.

The short story “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson, which was first published in 1940, depicts the brutal consequences of a random-selection lottery in a remote American village. The villagers’ hatred of the woman named Tessie Hutchinson grows as she becomes one of the victims of the lottery, and she is blamed for being a sinner in the eyes of her neighbors and her family.

State governments promote lottery games by arguing that they are a “painless” source of tax revenue, since players choose to spend their own money in order to participate. But Cohen shows that the choice to play is not always a rational one for individual participants, particularly when there are other alternatives. He also describes how the lottery industry is shaped by the economic cycle: it increases when unemployment and poverty rates rise, and decreases when incomes fall.

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