Columnists > Voices

Consensus for convenience

The rapid spread of legal gambling is not the result of thoughtful, reasoned arguments

Issue: "Isabel's slow march," Sept. 27, 2003

WHEN I WAS A CHILD AND THOUGHT AS A CHILD, I believed that decisions were products of reasons. Now I know better: Reasons are often products of decisions. Case in point: No constitutional scholar ever sat down in 1950 and, searching his conscience, deduced that the Fourth Amendment had a "right of privacy" in it, which in turn had a "right to abortion" in it, and that it was high time some courageous public servant pushed to make abortion-on-demand the law of the land. Rather, the country backed into a "civil right" when, years later, hedonism forged a consensus for convenience-and then cast about for a whitewash to pretty it up.

The thinking behind gambling these days is like that which led to Roe vs. Wade, and you should see how fast a vice gets rehabilitated to a virtue when enough folks put their minds to it.

Is it an evolving moral enlightenment that brings these United States to a change of heart toward Lady Luck? Au contraire. First comes states' fiscal overspending and financial hangovers, and then comes the warming up toward video poker, Keno, floating craps games, and slot machines at race tracks and convention centers. (If necessity is the mother of invention, desperation is the mother of depravity.)

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Here in Pennsylvania, Native Americans (who were a lot more inspirational to me when some went around hanging plaques with Chief Seattle's made-up quote, "The earth does not belong to us, we belong to the earth") are busy combing 200-year-old documents for land that William Penn might have swindled them out of. Next up: a federal lawsuit so they can claim the soil and build gambling emporiums on it, such as the behemoth just unveiled in Niagara Falls.

Meanwhile, Gov. Ed Rendell (who presumably loved Chief Seattle as much as the next guy before he inherited a billion-dollar budget shortfall) has let it be known that he will be tarred and feathered before he allows Native Pennsylvanians to cut into his control and revenue. The legalization of slots at racetracks is the keystone of Gov. Rendell's economic and education reform proposal. (Good, with his first million he can set up more 12-step educational programs for compulsive gamblers.)

With morality quickly becoming beside the point, the nation is on a fast track toward every imaginable kind of "tax on people who can't do math." All but the strongest voices of opposition have succumbed. The minimal hand-wringing on some editorial pages and in some corridors of power (second homes to gambling lobbyists, PACs, and Donald Trump) is a mostly pro forma warm-up to the more interesting question: How much is in it for me?

Moral rebuke has morphed into "Gambling is very wicked-and if you're gonna do it, we want our cut of the action." We read that Pennsylvania State Sen. Gibson Armstrong is "a leading opponent of gambling," since he tried to defeat the governor's delicate coalition with a dark-horse proposal to auction off slot licenses rather than just hand them to racetracks. What do you make of his statement that if allowing slots is a done deal, "then the state share must be maximized"?

(Remember the George Bernard Shaw story about how he once asked a woman if she would sleep with him for a thousand pounds? The woman demurely answered yes. Later he asked if she would sleep with him for fifty pounds. She indignantly replied, "What do you think I am?" "Madam," said Shaw, "We've already established what you are. We're just dickering over the price.")

The price is what a somber Atlantic City is trying to calculate. This is the 25th anniversary of its Faustian experiment as the Vegas of the East, but today the city celebrated in Monopoly has gambling palaces on one side of Atlantic Avenue and a dreary oversaturation of barbershops on the other-and 40,000 bewildered residents with a handful of empty promises. My sons and I went crabbing in the town last summer and the place looks like Bosnia in '95-deserted, desolate, like the aftermath of a pillage.

State governments fleeing like lemmings to gambling for economic salvation are leaning on "a broken reed," like the Israelites who wagered on Egypt to solve their national woes (Isaiah 36:6). But there will be no question of a quick fix and then looking for the nearest exit. When the seven-headed demon finds a house swept clean of scruples, he moves in and sets up housekeeping, making no plans to leave. Gamblers should have foreseen this roll of the dice because almost all of us know-and would remember if we weren't scrambling to whitewash truth with lame reasons-the very first rule of gambling is this: The house always wins.

Andrée Seu
Andrée Seu

Andrée is the author of three books: Won't Let You Go Unless You Bless Me, Normal Kingdom Business, and We Shall Have Spring Again.


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