What is a Lottery?

A lottery is a process in which people pay to try and win something that is limited but high in demand. Examples of such things include kindergarten admission at a reputable school, units in a subsidized housing block, or a vaccine for a rapid-moving virus. A lottery is a way to distribute these limited resources fairly for all participants, and can be a popular alternative to merit-based selection.

In the United States, lottery play contributes billions of dollars annually to government coffers. While some people play for the thrill of winning a big prize, others believe that lotteries are their last, best, or only chance at a new life. These players go into the games clear-eyed about the odds. They do have “quote-unquote” systems that are irrational by statistical reasoning, about lucky numbers and stores and times of day to buy tickets, but they understand the odds of winning are very long.

Those who support state-run lotteries often argue that they provide a needed public good, like education, by raising revenue without especially onerous taxes on middle and working class citizens. The argument is persuasive, as Cohen shows, but it also allows state governments to disregard a long history of ethical objections to gambling.

The story is set in a rural American village where the social customs of the time still dominate. The villagers gather for the lottery in a convivial setting, exchanging banter and casually handling each other’s slips of paper. The event seems harmless enough, even though the story is a warning of humanity’s evil nature.