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The False Messages of the Lottery


The lottery is a game where people pay to enter a drawing for prizes, such as money or goods. The winner is chosen by chance, usually by a computer or some other random mechanism. The prize money is often quite large, and in many cases a percentage of the profits go to charities. People often play for the pure entertainment value of the draw, as well as for the opportunity to win. The concept of the lottery is ancient, going back thousands of years. It is mentioned in the Bible, and there are countless examples of lotteries in ancient Rome, where they were used for everything from deciding who would be the next emperor to divining God’s will.

Historically, state-sponsored lotteries have been a common way to raise money for a variety of public projects, from building the British Museum to repairing bridges. They are also a part of history’s cultural fabric, having been cited in the works of authors from Nero to Benjamin Franklin, who held a lottery for cannons to defend Philadelphia during the American Revolution.

In the modern era, lottery advertising tends to focus on the size of the jackpot, which is effective at drumming up interest. It’s easy to understand why jackpots are so popular—they represent a huge monetary gain with very low cost, making them the most appealing kind of gambling for many people.

There are other messages that are being sent out, though. One is that the money you get from winning the lottery is a good thing to have, and that you should feel proud of yourself for buying a ticket. This is a message that can be hard to decipher, because it is often mixed up with the notion that state-sponsored lotteries are somehow morally responsible, a bit like the old cigarette ads where we were told it was our civic duty to buy a pack of cigarettes for the troops fighting in Vietnam.

The other big message is that state governments are relying on the profits from the lottery to keep their taxes down. But this isn’t exactly true—states are spending a lot more than they are raising through gambling, and there is no reason to believe that the lottery will make it possible for them to continue their current levels of service without significantly increasing tax rates or cutting services.

This is a false message, and it’s not only misleading but dangerously irresponsible. The truth is that the only way to make state government sustainable is to dramatically increase the amount of revenue it takes in. And that’s why it’s so important to keep in mind the underlying economics of state lotteries when you’re considering whether or not to buy a ticket.

The villagers in DiYanni’s short story were indifferent to the odds of winning, but their actions reveal a deeper, darker underbelly. Despite knowing that they were unlikely to win, they kept playing because they felt a small glimmer of hope that they would.