The Lottery and Hedonic Calculus

A lottery is an arrangement in which prizes, such as money, goods or services, are allocated by chance. It is one of the most ancient forms of gambling, and it was popularized by state-sponsored games in England and America in the seventeenth century. These lotteries were a form of “voluntary taxes” and were used to raise funds for everything from town fortifications to the poor. They became particularly popular in the New England colonies, where they were widely held despite Protestant proscriptions against gambling. In fact, Cohen writes, public lotteries were so popular that they helped to finance Harvard, Dartmouth, Yale, King’s College, William and Mary, Union, and Brown, and were the model for a national system of voluntary taxation that was later adopted by other countries.

The short story begins with a description of an annual event in a small, rural village in June. The people gathered for the lottery, which is meant to ensure a successful harvest. Old Man Warner recited an old proverb: “Lottery in June, corn be heavy soon.”

The lottery is a game in which people guess a fixed number of numbers from a range and hope to win the prize. The odds of winning are absurdly low—but, paradoxically, the higher the stakes, the more people play. The reason is that the entertainment value of a possible victory outweighs the disutility of a monetary loss. The lottery is a perfect example of hedonic calculus.