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The other day I posted the short story The Lottery by Shirley Jackson. One of the reasons that I did this is that I like the story. Its chilling and very unexpected the first time you read it.

I recalled the story from my high school days because I had been contemplating the idea of the lottery. Have you ever taken a moment to think about just what exactly the lottery is? Why it would come about? Why people would participate?

Historically, evidence of lotteries has been found as far back as the Han Dynasty (think 200 B.C.). Lotteries were utilized by the Roman Empire as a means to raise funds.

Public lotteries have historically been used as a means of easy taxation for the financing of public works projects, including the Great Wall of China. In colonial America hundreds of lotteries played fundraising roles in the financing of public ventures, including roads, libraries, and bridges. Lotteries played roles in the initial financing of educational institutions such as Princeton and Columbia University.

Currently, 54 countries have national lotteries. In the United States, there are public lotteries in 42 states.

Some of the largest lottery jackpots in U.S. history include:

$390m Mega Millions (2007) Won by one ticket holder from New Jersey and one from Georgia
$365m Powerball (2006) Eight co-workers at a Nebraska meat processing plant
$363m Mega Millions (2000) Two winning tickets: Larry Ross and Nancy Ross, Joe and Sue Kainz
$314m Powerball Andrew Whittaker
$270m MegaMillions Robert and Tayne Harris

It is easy to understand why someone would play the lottery with its accompanying possibilities of great wealth. It is also easy to understand its appeal to the state as a relatively painless means of taxation. What I’m trying to understand is the underlying human psychology that would cause a group of people to pool a ridiculous amount of money with the purpose of giving it all to one person in that group. Yes, included with your purchase of the lottery ticket is an equal-rights share in a chance to win the money. I understand that, but that, again, is not what I’m exploring.

What I’m trying to understand is the psychology of the existence of the lottery itself. I think its easier to understand the lottery in, say, the 1700s. If you have a village of a thousand people who each contribute 1/1000 of the cost of a cow, then you raffle off the cow, hey, I’ve just won myself a cow.

On that level, with relatively smaller sums in a time of more need, I understand it. One thousand villagers may not all be able to buy a cow individually. But if one of us can have a cow, and we all have an equal chance at that cow, let’s go for it. We’ll take our chances that we’re the winners. If there is no ability to save up to buy the cow or to buy the cow on credit, at least one of us has a cow.

But the modern lottery is something altogether different. No longer are we talking about a cow for one lucky guy in the village. With the advent of Powerball and Mega Millions, we’re talking crazy money. More money than a person could reasonably spend in their lifetime. We’re talking Scrooge McDuck money. Thurston Howell III money.

No longer is the money pooled and raffled off as a way of lifting one person out of the muck. Now, these sums are so ridiculous that lottery winners never have to do anything ever again. Its the historical equivalent of taking a poor villager and giving him the nobleman’s castle, his cellar full of wine and all of the land upon which the other villagers toil.

I understand the “well, it could be me” aspect to the lottery. That’s why you play the game. But it doesn’t explain why we still have the game. Why the state sanctions a lottery. Why society embraces the lottery. Why we are each willing to pool a small amount of money with the sole purpose of giving one single person more than they could ever dream of.

Truly, its a weird, weird lottery.