The Illogic of Lottery Traditions


The villagers’ loyalty to the old black box reveals the illogic of lottery traditions. It’s the same sort of illogic that holds for people who insist that because they’ve always done it that way, it must continue to happen that way. It doesn’t make sense to be loyal to a shabby, barely-black container that’s full of splinters that don’t work very well anymore, just because it’s a tradition.

Since New Hampshire inaugurated the modern era of state lotteries in 1964, most states have followed suit. Lottery revenues have given state governments the freedom to expand their array of services without imposing onerous taxes on low-income citizens. But it’s also created a dependency on gambling, and the result is that state governments at all levels find themselves continually under pressure to increase their revenues from this source.

It’s easy to see how lotteries have become embedded in the American culture. They’re a wildly popular activity, and the prizes are often substantial—whether it’s cash or goods. But they’re not without their critics. These critics are usually concerned about the problem of compulsive gambling and the regressive effect that lotteries have on lower-income groups.

Some critics argue that lotteries undermine the moral foundation of democracy by promoting the idea that success in life depends on luck and not effort or careful preparation. Others say that the government should use its resources to help people achieve their goals instead of putting it into a lottery where people can lose everything and then have to work for it.