Shirley Jackson’s Lottery as an Allegory for Business Regulation

By Steven Specht No comments

Note—If you haven’t read The Lottery, I give away the plot within. But it’s only 8 pages, so just Google “Shirley Jackson Lottery PDF,” read it, and come back.

A summary of the plot

The Lottery take place in a small, unnamed community of approximately 300 people.

They are participating in an annual tradition of a lottery based on the belief that it guarantees better crop production.

“Lottery in June, corn be heavy soon,” says one crotchety old man when someone observes that many larger communities have phased out the lottery entirely.

We know that this annual occurrence has been done as long as anyone can remember, but neither the reader nor the characters know why.

Most of the traditions have been forgotten, save one:

A random villager is to be stoned to death every year on June 27th.

Everyone attends the lottery knowing there are fairly good odds that they could be sacrificed. It is very clear through the ticketing process that even a toddler can receive the black mark that makes them the “winner” of a death by stoning.

If the impact of a story could be measured as a proportion of its text to critique and derivation, The Lottery would rank near the top. At only 3,773 words, it is subject to more than 10,000 individual literary critiques. So, I am in good company when throwing mine on top of the heap.

The vast majority of these writings serve as a ham-handed slam of criminal justice, capitalism, conservativism, or some combination of the three.

While these are not incorrect in their approach, I’m taking a different tack of criticizing progressive attempts at regulating capitalism.

While perhaps noble in their efforts, in practice, regulation (and enforcement) seems less dedicated to evening out the market/rooting out corruption and more about the occasional public stoning of a one-percenter. This is necessary, so that faith is maintained in the market overall.

And I hear your critique of my observation:

“The system’s not rigged. Why if it were, then how do you explain that Pharma Bro guy who went to jail?”

Now don’t confuse my critique as somehow sympathetic to that Pharma Bro guy. Martin Shkreli was a lousy human who deserved every day in prison. However, his miscreant behavior went all the way back to before the onset of The Great Recession and people looked the other way.

Shkreli’s mistake was jacking up the price on life-saving drugs during an election year as both political parties scrambled to find a toe-hold of moral high ground when a third of the population wanted to Bern the entire system down. 

This is the case with all the faces of grift and graft on Wall Street and elsewhere. We do this about once a decade.

In 2009 it was Bernie Madoff and his pyramid scheme. The SEC had been warned for years about his scam, but the SEC either lacked the resources or the statutory ability to do something about it. He only got caught because the recession left him with his neck out. He’ll serve the rest of his life behind bars, but he’s just the sacrifice made by a system that knowingly gave AAA ratings to junk bonds that were the backbone of pension funds and city budgets all over the country.

In 1999 it was Jordan Belfort and his pump and dump stock schemes. He served 22 months in minimum security.

Image result for jordan belfort image di caprio
The Depiction of Jordan Belfort by Leonardo DiCaprio

In 1992, it was Charles Keating, but after being at the center of a decades old scam involving numerous people in the financial community and some prominent politicians, we see a few tarnished reputations, but hardly any prison time.

And on and on and on.

We don’t care to actually regulate using well-understood economic and financial realities. We just have our own “lottery” often enough to make people think that someone is awake at the wheel so the system can continue.