In the world of gambling, lottery refers to the awarding of prizes based on random selection. It is distinguished from other forms of gambling, such as casino games and sports betting, in which a consideration—often money or goods—is paid for the opportunity to win.

Shirley Jackson’s short story, The Lottery, is a chilling depiction of human evil at work in a small rural American village. The villagers conspire to punish one of their number at random. It doesn’t matter if they are guilty of anything other than drawing the wrong slip on Lottery Day. The head of each family draws a piece of paper from a box, and one is marked with a black spot. If the head of a household draws that ticket, everyone in that household must draw again, this time for a different slip with the black spot.

Lotteries have a long history, beginning in the fifteenth century in Burgundy and Flanders as towns sought ways to raise funds for defense and charity. Francis I of France authorized public lotteries in several cities between 1520 and 1539.

Today, states often use lotteries to generate revenue without arousing the ire of an antitax electorate. By paying out a decent percentage of proceeds in prize money, state lotteries don’t look like taxes and thus avoid triggering a political backlash. But this strategy isn’t foolproof. As Cohen points out, the popularity of the lottery rose in tandem with declining incomes, a rising inequality gap, and the collapse of the American dream that hard work and education would guarantee financial security for those who earned it.