The Lottery – A Book Review

The casting of lots has a long history in human life, as attested to in the Bible and elsewhere. In modern times, the lottery became a popular source of public funds in Europe and America. Its advocates argued that it provided “painless revenue” because players voluntarily spent their money, unlike taxes. It was also an easy way to finance government projects, like building the British Museum or repairing roads and bridges. Its opponents countered that it tended to subsidize wealthier groups at the expense of poorer ones.

In the immediate post-World War II era, however, state lotteries gained popularity among states that already had generous social safety nets and were concerned about declining revenues. Inflation, the costs of the Vietnam War, and a growing population eroded the relative prosperity that had prevailed in the postwar years, and many states began to cut back on services for the middle class and working classes, even though the wealthy benefited from lower tax rates. Lotteries, they argued, would help make up the difference.

Typically, after the initial surge, lottery revenues level off and sometimes decline, which is one reason that new games are constantly introduced to stimulate interest and keep revenue levels high. Another factor is that the types of people who play the lottery tend to differ from the general population, with men playing more than women; blacks and Hispanics playing more than whites; and the young and the old playing less than middle-aged adults. As a result, some states have to invest a great deal in advertising and promotion to maintain their lotteries’ revenue base, which can be expensive.

Cohen’s book focuses on the evolution of lottery policy in America. His story starts in the nineteen-sixties, when a growing awareness of all the money to be made in the gambling business collided with a crisis in state funding. The American public, he writes, was becoming aware that the golden era of low taxes that had financed a burgeoning array of government programs was fading.

As a result, the political class began to turn against taxes and to look for ways to bolster state coffers without raising the burden on the middle classes. Lotteries were a solution.

As the story of the villagers in The Lottery unfolds, it is worth considering how the social factors mentioned above affect their choices. In particular, how does the prevailing mood in the village contribute to their willingness to sacrifice one of their own? What is the role of traditions and customs in this society? How do traditional gender social roles impact on individual behavior in this context?

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