America Gambles With Its Future


My family and I and about 100 million other people look forward to watching Super Bowl 56 this Sunday. I am less excited about the commercials. The NFL audience, you see, has been deluged this season with ads for mobile sports betting. Two online platforms, Caesars Sportsbook and DraftKings Casino, have replaced Cialis and Viagra as the sponsors most likely to inspire awkward conversations with the kids. There’s no reason to expect the uneasiness will end by kickoff.

NFL broadcasts have always featured ads for potentially dangerous indulgences such as junk food and beer—that’s why you need all the insurance they try to sell you. And I am as big a fan of J.B. Smoove as the next middle-aged white guy. What makes me pause is the chance, however slight, that one day my children will become hooked on Smoove’s product.

Gambling is for most people a harmless form of entertainment. But not for all people. For millions of pathological or problem gamblers, betting can end in debt, bankruptcy, family breakdown, criminality, and substance abuse. These tragic outcomes carry costs that, while hard to see, tear at our threadbare social fabric. The speed with which sports gambling has become a ubiquitous, stigma-free, multibillion-dollar industry tells us something about both the state of the country and the condition of the American Right. Something we may not want to hear.

“The Puritans believed gambling was sinful,” reported Timothy L. O’Brien and Elaine He for Bloomberg Opinion last December. “And for much of U.S. history, that cultural disdain prevailed—however hypocritical or puritanical it might seem.” Yet it wasn’t just “the Puritans” who believed in the immorality of staking one’s fortunes on the chance of a payoff. No Abrahamic religion encourages betting.

Like other forms of “cultural disdain,” the taboo against gambling prevailed in most places until, oh, about two generations ago. The exceptions in the United States proved the rule. Nevada legalized gambling in 1931. New Jersey authorized casino gambling in 1976. Gambling was illegal elsewhere. Las Vegas and Atlantic City were known as dens of iniquity. That’s what made them such fun.

The iniquity has since gone national. New Hampshire launched the first state lottery in 1964. Today 45 states and Washington, D.C., sell lotto tickets. Their primary customers are low-income taxpayers. Practically every state has a casino. Thirty-one states have legal sports betting. The number of states with fully online sports betting—the sort on offer from DraftKings and Caesars—proliferated after a 2018 Supreme Court ruling.

The NFL itself is “all in” on sports betting, according to a recent Bloomberg Businessweek, despite the potential for corruption and gambling’s susceptibility to organized crime. The American Gaming Association estimates that some 31 million Americans will wager $7.6 billion on this year’s Super Bowl. That amount is a trifle compared with the size of America’s $24 trillion economy. For some gamblers, however, a portion of that $7.6 billion will be the difference between solvency and dissolution.

Back in 1973, Irving Kristol was struck by Americans’ eagerness to turn their country into a giant Sin City. Kristol wrote in the Wall Street Journal that gambling “undermines the classical virtues (moderation, self-reliance, self-discipline, thrift, diligence, etc.) while nourishing the classical vices (extravagance, avarice, the lack of social responsibility, etc.).” While professing his fondness for Las Vegas, Kristol also noted the ethical dilemmas involved in state lotteries and the problems that arise when people fail to distinguish between entertainment and vice.

Kristol found it odd that the government sets a minimum wage while advertising ways in which someone can fritter that wage away. “Does it really make sense,” he asked, “for the government to enact a mountain of legislation, from SEC registration to the labeling of consumer products, which protects people from unwise expenditures while urging them to make the unwisest expenditures of all, i.e., a gambling bet?”

Notice that the spread of gambling in the United States coincided with other forms of self-seeking, present-minded, and irresponsible behavior: the overconsumption of food and drink, the legalization of drugs, the pornification of society, and the rapid accumulation of private and public debt. As Americans loosened the bonds of self-restraint, as they came to think of thrift and moderation as “hypocritical or puritanical,” their society became unbundled and unrestrained. Their culture coarsened. Their politics turned vicious.

Religion weakened. The triumph of gambling accompanied the growth of the unaffiliated—the “Nones” who profess no specific faith. The ethical injunctions of faith are intended to restrain irresponsible impulses. They are meant to direct attention away from the present to the future. These lessons become distant memories without religious education. They are forgotten without parents who habituate their children in virtuous conduct.

The lack of any uproar over online sports betting is a reminder that today’s Right is disoriented, off-kilter. Here is an issue that galvanized social conservatives for decades. Here is an issue that goes directly to the moral character of society and to the moral implications of politics. Yet the Right’s attention is elsewhere. It welcomes the “Barstool Conservatives” for whom vulgarity and freedom are synonyms. Its most passionate causes this week are Canadian truckers and the former host of Fear Factor. It sometimes acts as though the common good means the ability to say whatever you want, do whatever you want, indulge yourself for as long as you want—just so long as you own the libs.

Today’s gambling culture, like crypto, meme stocks, Twitch, and Greta Thunberg, may be just another aspect of the 21st century that I don’t “get.” Perhaps I am just another overprotective parent. Perhaps America is on the verge of rediscovering the moral dimension of politics, of reclaiming the virtues of self-restraint and comportment without which self-government cannot survive. Perhaps everything will be fine.

But I wouldn’t bet on it.

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