Hooked on gambling

William Safire

April 23, 1991|By William Safire

Harper's Ferry, W.Va. -- IN DEADWOOD, S.D., where in 1876 Wild Bill Hickok was shot in the back during a poker game while holding a hand of aces and eights, gambling was re-introduced in 1989. Despite a betting limit of $5, the amount wagered by tourists and other suckers in the once-moribund town has already passed a third of a billion dollars.

That's only for openers. South Dakota's state lottery, reaching for the youth market, has also invested in video games, the modern equivalent of state-sponsored slot machines. West Virginia is experimenting with video machines at racetracks.

New York and Connecticut up the ante with telephone off-track betting, likely to spread to faxes and computer modems for hacker-touts. And liberal Iowa, on the pretense of reviving interest in the less savory elements of its history, has launched river-boat gambling on the Mississippi -- retaining 20 percent of casino winnings, which longtime gamblers grumble is too much vigorish.

All this means that Americans at the state level are deciding that gambling is good -- not just a tolerable evil, but a positive value. Gambling has become a goal of public policy.

Only a few years ago, proponents of state lotteries were claiming that state control would channel the profits of an unstoppable human frailty toward good ends. Why let numbers racketeers and Mafia casino operators bilk the public, their argument went -- why not steer those ill-gotten gains into public schools?

The answer is spreading like a poison through state and local governments: immoral means have never led to moral ends. We are no longer skimming the profits from a criminal activity: we are putting the full force of government into the promotion of moral corruption.

What am I, some kind of stiff? Is a friendly game of gin rummy at a penny a point to be frowned upon, or a church social that raises its costs at a bingo game to be condemned, or a privately owned gambling yacht catering to rich drunks cause for conservative concern?

I'm a libertarian. If people want to titillate themselves with a game of chance, or delude themselves into thinking they can beat the odds, that's their private business. I just do not think it should be the public business.

Gambling promotion has become a key to state budget-balancing. Card-carrying right-wingers are not supposed to mind taxing the poor, but really soaking the poor -- as this excessively regressive taxation does -- sticks in my craw.

Why? Because it is wrong for the state to exploit the weakness of its citizens. It is the most unfair and painful form of "painless" taxation. The money isn't coming from a few big bookies and croupiers, but from the pockets of millions.

And 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, or because other states will use casinos to lure their tourism. They have become as hooked on gambling as a source of revenue as any compulsive gambler betting the milk money.

Here's what you can do to stop the explosion of government-sponsored gambling:

* Tell your local television anchor you've had it with media hype of gambling. Features of giggling lottery winners or hoo-hahing over million-dollar jackpots is cheap-shot journalism; show us some people impoverished by gambling, or expose the cost of the state bureaucracy pushing it.

* Apply truth-in-advertising to state-sponsored slots, lotteries and video games. Display prominently the odds against winning; state the number of losers for every winner. Demand stations make free equal time available for anti-gambling messages.

* Demand that gubernatorial gamesters stop using their "take" for advertising. The old numbers racket was never permitted mass-market advertising; the creation of fresh demand for gambling by a public agency is against the public interest.

* Tell your kids that gamblers are life's losers. Private gambling, like prostitution, should not be illegal, but it should not be treated as a value. And to make the state hustling of gambling profits the basis for state education is like shooting Marshal Hickok in the back.

William Safire is a columnist for the New York Times. 9

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