The villagers of this little town gather in the square on June 27 for their official lottery. The women, the children and their husbands, brothers and fathers come to help, bringing baskets of food for the lunch afterwards. The men gather last, and it is a quiet affair, a sort of family ritual. Mr. Summers has been sworn in as the official of the lottery; some people remember that there used to be a proper recital of some tuneless chant, but it was allowed to lapse. Before the lottery can begin there is a great deal of fussing over lists to be made up–heads of families and heads of households in each family. The list of names to be drawn must be written out in ink and carefully sorted.

The lottery has a lot of jobs, it’s true. It provides a public service by offering small amounts of money to a large number of people, it’s a form of charitable giving, and it provides a source of tax revenue for state government. And in the immediate post-World War II period, lotteries provided states with a new way to expand their array of services without raising especially onerous taxes on middle and working class citizens.

But the lottery is also a business, and it has a lot of incentive to tell players and voters all the good things it does with its enormous profits. That’s a very dangerous thing to do, because voters will get mad when they realize that their state lotteries aren’t really doing all that much good for them.