The pursuit of wealth without work

January 04, 1996|By George F. Will

WASHINGTON -- Diana Cooper, a live wire in British society between the wars, always edited the Lord's Prayer when reciting it, refusing to say ''Lead us not into temptation'' because ''it's no business of His.''

As today's Americans yield, even more than Americans always have, to the temptation to gamble, libertarians say this vice, if such it is, is none of the government's business to disapprove, particularly because governments almost everywhere are inciting it.

Still, Congress may commission a study of the causes and consequences of the changed public attitude that underlies this fact: Today only two states -- Utah and Hawaii -- do not have legalized gambling, the status of which has changed in just a generation from that of social disease to social policy. Perhaps the study should begin with the thoughts of J.H. Plumb, the British historian, on the pandemic wagering in 18th-century Britain.

Life, including the law, was often cruel and many people lived in unspeakable poverty in slums where epidemics slaughtered children and many men survived two or three wives.

The British ''took these things in stride as part of life's vast gamble,'' wrote Plumb, adding: ''Living so close to death, they grew to love risk. Betting provided an outlet. Raindrops running down a windowpane, the fertility of a dean's wife, horse races, cricket matches, dogfights, dice and cards -- all were fit subjects for a bet.''

Perhaps the gambling fever in late 20th-century America arises in part from contrasting conditions: So many of life's risks have been removed or palliated, living is not stimulating enough without gambling.

But there is much more than that behind the change since 1935, when Grand Rapids, Mich., police jailed the woman who organized bingo games for Catholic charities. Or since 1950, when the first great television spectacle from Washington, the Kefauver Committee investigation of organized crime, focused on the menace of gambling.

Massachusetts Puritans passed America's first law against gambling in 1638. At about the time General Washington was distressed by gambling among soldiers at Valley Forge, Harvard and other universities were doing what all the colonies had done -- using lotteries to raise funds. (President Washington supported a lottery to finance construction in the District of Columbia.)

In 1964, notoriously taxaphobic New Hampshire launched the first state lottery. Seventeen of that year's 18 winners were from out of state. One reason state lotteries have multiplied is self-defense -- to keep the money at home. Today state governments spend upward of $400 million a year advertising the lotteries that raise upward of $40 billion in ''voluntary taxation.''

'The pathology of hope'

Big government now depends on big gambling. Government needs gambling to help siphon government's total take -- 35.6 percent of GDP -- from the economy. So governments exploit what Robert Goodman, a student of gambling, calls ''the pathology of hope,'' which is particularly strong and poignant among the poor who have lost confidence in work as a means of upward mobility. Kim Phillips, a Chicago journalist, reports that one South Side liquor store sells 2,700 lottery tickets a day when the state jackpot reaches $20 million.

Of course gambling also satisfies something inherently human -- a desire for play. More than 70 percent of Americans gamble in a given year, many of them putting money at risk for the same reason people ride roller coasters and see horror films -- for an adrenalin rush not attained elsewhere in lives lacking intense experiences.

There can be different dimensions to the pleasures of gambling in different social milieus. At the turn of the century, when adoration of science gave rise to depressing philosophies of determinism, gambling was a way of asserting the reality of randomness, another name for luck.

At the end of the century, with the weed of pessimism growing in profusion in the national garden, gambling may be for many people a fatalistic assertion of the belief that most of life is luck. If in the new economy the rewards of life go increasingly to the intellectually gifted, and if that gift is to a significant extent conferred by genetic inheritance, then life is to a significant extent a lottery won or lost at conception, so one might as well roll the dice as life rolls along.

The pursuit of wealth without work is not new to this vale of tears. However, to the extent that ''players'' (as the gambling industry, which calls itself the ''gaming industry,'' prefers to call gamblers) regard gambling not as play but as a utilitarian activity, and one tinged with despair or desperation, the proliferation of gambling is deeply depressing.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

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