Only a few years ago it seemed that religious and other civic leaders could be counted on for vigorous opposition to government promotion of gambling. No longer. State after state has now succumbed to the temptation to pick up “easy money” by exploiting the weaknesses of its citizens, and especially of the poor. It appears that most Americans have resigned themselves to this sordid development as a fait accompli. But we can hope that it is not too late for second thoughts and effective efforts for reform.
We’re not just talking about places like Atlantic City and Las Vegas. South Dakota, despite a $5 limit on bets, is in the midst of a multibillion dollar gambling boom sponsored by the state government. The lottery there is deliberately reaching out to the youth market by promoting gambling through video games, the modern equivalent of the pinball machine. West Virginia is introducing video machines at racetracks, while New York and Connecticut push gambling through off-track betting by telephone and fax machines. Iowa, under the pretense of reviving a colorful aspect of its history, is pushing riverboat gambling on the Mississippi, with the state taking 20 percent of the casino winnings. And so it goes around the country.
What’s wrong with people having a little fun by throwing away a few bucks on the delusion that they can beat the odds? After all, a little artificial excitement may relieve the boredom of humdrum lives. A bingo game that raises money for a good cause, gin rummy at a penny a point, or a friendly evening of poker with a $5 limit—all these seem innocent enough. Certainly the government should not be invading living rooms or social halls to arrest people for pursuing the modest kicks they get from that kind of gambling. Just as certainly, the government should not be engaged in massive campaigns to encourage gambling. And that is what is happening now.
The claim is regularly made that the money is being raised for noble purposes. The purpose usually cited is public education, especially education for poor kids. To hear governors and state legislators tell it, we have almost a moral obligation to gamble. Designating gambling revenue for education, however, is simply another shell game. The state winnings that go to education make it possible to transfer education funds to general operations or deficit reduction. As columnist William Safire has recently observed, “Gambling taxation feeds on itself. We cannot give up the state income from betting, say legislators who feel guilty about pretending that gambling is good, because the states have become dependent on the money . . . . They have become as hooked on gambling as a source of revenue as any compulsive gambler betting the milk money.”
In a democracy, the need for popular consent to tax is a powerful check on government growth and irresponsibility. A government that raises money by encouraging and exploiting the weaknesses of its citizens escapes that democratic mechanism of accountability. As important, state-sponsored gambling undercuts the civic virtue upon which democratic governance depends.
Of course, regardless of what governments do, gambling is not going to go away. The gambling habit is deeply entrenched in human history. The knucklebone, the predecessor of dice, was used for gambling in the sixteenth century B.C. Ivory and porcelain dice—some of them loaded—were found in the ruins of Pompeii. Historically, Jews and Christians have not been of one mind on what to do about gambling. But all viewed it with moral opprobrium and condemned in no uncertain terms the gambling habit that leads to addiction, which is precisely what state governments are now systematically encouraging.
Gambling is getting money by means of an artificially created chance, where the gain of the winners is made at the expense of the losers and the gain is secured without rendering any service or other value in exchange. That’s one textbook definition. More simply, gambling is an escape from responsibility. When the burdens of the world weigh too heavily upon us, times of escape may be not only innocent but essential. But gambling is a multibillion-dollar industry aimed at encouraging escapism as a way of life. It is no accident that the gambling industry is so closely connected with organized crime, prostitution, graft, extortion, and drugs. Gambling thrives by exploiting people who enter a world where they abandon the reserve and discipline essential to civilized order. That the Gambino brothers move in and take advantage is no surprise. When the state follows suit, government and our common life are demeaned. There are patterns of behavior that the state cannot effectively suppress. That does not mean that the state should actively encourage the undermining of personal and public virtue.
Religious and other institutions of civic leadership must rediscover their nerve in opposing the rush of states to take advantage of “easy money” by replacing democratically approved taxation with revenues that depend upon the encouragement of moral terpitude. In their opposition such leaders will of course run the risk of being portrayed as blue-nosed spoilsports. So what? It is a compliment to be insulted by the sleazy interests that have a steep stake in expanding the gambling industry. Most particularly, we should oppose the governmental use of gambling revenues to promote more gambling. The old numbers racket was never permitted mass-market advertising. Arguably, that racket had the merit of encouraging a measure of street-level entrepreneurship. Why should a criminal activity be deemed acceptable when the state does it?
The state cannot enforce virtue, but it can encourage it. Among the most elementary ways to encourage virtue is to refuse to encourage vice. State lotteries and similar devices are numbers rackets that no doubt give some people a little fun, but they are aimed at life’s losers who are addicted to the delusion of striking it rich. If states are going to engage in such activities, they should at least be required to display prominently the odds against winning, advertising the number of losers for every winner. Equal time should be made available for anti-gambling messages on television, radio, and billboards.
At a time when respect for government has reached what may be a historic low, it is profoundly discouraging to see states rushing to capitalize on personal and civic corruption. When the state is playing croupier and hustler, talk about the dignity of government invites only derision. It is, sad to say, derision well deserved.