The Morality of the Lottery


The lottery is a form of gambling in which numbers are drawn for prizes. It is often seen as a relatively painless way for state governments to raise revenue and expand their social safety nets without raising taxes on the middle class and working classes, which might be resisted in an anti-tax era. It was popularized in the immediate post-World War II period, when states were seeking to provide a more expansive array of services but faced fiscal limits.

But state lotteries are a form of government-sanctioned gambling, and as such, they carry with them a variety of moral baggage. Some of that baggage is obvious: the winners, and especially the jackpot winners, are largely the wealthy and the fortunate; the odds of winning are very long; people who buy tickets spend far more than they can afford to lose; the money won is usually paid out over 20 years and subjected to dramatic inflation in the meantime; and lottery advertising is often deceptive, portraying winnings as more “affordable” than they really are (while omitting any mention of the fact that most people do not win).

But there are other messages in play as well. For example, the shabby black box represents the tradition and illogic of the lottery: it is a ritualized relic to which people feel loyalty because it has always been done this way, even though it’s worn down and falling apart. It is a similar kind of loyalty that lottery commissions encourage, by emphasizing the wackiness and weirdness of the games and coding in the idea that playing them is fun and even exhilarating.