The lottery is a form of prize drawing that award money or goods to one or more individuals at random. It is often used to distribute prizes, such as land or cash, for public works or other benefits such as school scholarships. Modern lotteries may be run by governments or private entities. They usually include a central computer system for recording the identities of bettors, their amounts staked, and their numbers or other symbols, which are then shuffled and randomly selected for inclusion in the drawing. Some lotteries use only a random number generator for selecting winners, while others select participants by a process known as “blind drawing,” in which the names of those who have purchased tickets are read out loud and their selections are revealed.
The earliest records of public lotteries in Europe date to the 15th century, when various towns held such games to raise money for town fortifications or aid the poor. The practice was widely adopted throughout the world in the centuries that followed. Francis I of France began a series of public lotteries in his cities in the late 16th century, and private lotteries became popular. During the American Revolution, Benjamin Franklin sponsored a lottery to raise funds for cannons to defend Philadelphia against the British. Private lotteries also helped fund Harvard, Yale, Dartmouth, Brown, and other American colleges.
One reason why lotteries are controversial is that, despite their seemingly irrational nature, they can have very real impacts on the lives of many people. Even though a person’s chances of winning are slim, the process can lead to feelings of anxiety and hopelessness for those who do not win. In some cases, people become obsessed with attempting to win the big prize, and in some instances, they may spend more money on tickets than is possible to win.
A second reason why some people are uncomfortable with lottery distribution is that, regardless of whether a lottery is weighted or not, it still leaves the outcome to chance. Some people feel that it is irrational to rely on chance when making distributive decisions, such as deciding who should receive scarce therapeutics during an outbreak of a pandemic. It would be better to give the therapeutics to those who need them most, they argue, rather than leaving it up to a random process.
In her story “The Lottery,” Shirley Jackson wrote about a small Vermont town where an annual lottery seems like a festive occasion, but is actually a brutal exercise in social conformity. As Tessie Hutchinson draws her ticket, the townspeople stone her to death. This scene is probably influenced in part by Jackson’s fascination with ancient rites and rituals and her concern for social prejudice, such as anti-Semitism. When she published the story in 1948, news of the Holocaust had only recently reached America and had yet to be widely publicized. It is likely that these concerns influenced her portrayal of the lottery as a brutal irrationality.