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Government’s unseemly promotion of gambling


Legalized gambling has suddenly appeared everywhere in America. In 1976 the nation bet $17.3 billion; in 1997 the figure was $638.6 billion!

Three years ago the White House and the Congress appointed a nine-member commission to investigate the new and startling phenomenon of gambling, on which America now spends more than on movies, sports and music combined.

After an expenditure of $5 million, the National Gaming Impact Study Commission reported its findings on June 18.

The recommendations are mixed. They do not really urge any major curtailment of gambling. In addition, any restrictions on gambling will have to be imposed by state legislatures -- an unlikely result since the legislators who authorize gambling like it because for them it’s a “free lunch.”

The report does not stress or even mention the fact that from 1850 to 1950 the nation’s religions and the federal and state legislatures virtually banned gambling. It was contrary to the basic moral truth that virtuous citizens should not look for something for nothing.

That attitude dissolved suddenly with hardly any protest from organized religion. Now, according to a study by the National Opinion Research Center, some 50 percent of the population gambles. Only Utah, Tennessee and Hawaii forbid it.

The social consequences are doleful. There are an estimated 15 million people who are at risk of problem gambling. The list of chapters for Gamblers Anonymous has nearly doubled since 1990. The number of bankruptcies has risen sharply; the National Opinion Research Center survey reports on the extensive family costs brought about by problem and pathological gambling.

The commission, with three members from the professional gambling industry, also had James C. Dobson, the prominent conservative leader who apparently altered his views as he grasped the fact that “the American people want gambling” and that it would be “foolish for this commission to tell them they can’t have it.”

A recent book titled The Bad Debt by journalist Timothy O’Brien reports that there are 10 million citizens who are active gamblers. He is not certain what can be done about these individuals and notes that there are millions who follow the stock market and phone their broker almost every day. Where does the legal pursuit of profits end and the “addiction” of gambling begin?

The commission concedes that it was not able to answer this question very clearly. It recommended that the proprietors of gambling sites be forbidden to contribute campaign funds to state legislators, a proposition unlikely to fly in Nevada or elsewhere.

The commission tried to cope with the explosion of gambling on Indian reservations. This development happened by accident after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that states may not tax the revenues earned by gambling on Indian reservations. Congress passed a regulatory system that has turned Indian reservations into gold mines. There are now 298 facilities on Indian reservations in 31 states. From 1988 to 1998 tribal gambling increased from $212 million to $6.7 billion!

The Commission on Gambling was heavily influenced by the industry it was designed to evaluate. The president of the American Gambling Association, Frank Fahrenkopf, seems satisfied with the results. He has regularly talked about the jobs generated and the tax revenue received as justification for the presence of lotteries in 37 states, casinos in 21 and pari-mutuel betting in some 25.

Government in America has always been assumed to have some kind of moral duty to promote virtue in its people. The government discourages excessive consumption of alcohol, urges people not to smoke and communicates all types of information about healthy living.

Until recently the thrust and spirit of the law everywhere was to protect people from seeking to get money from gambling. Now governments exhort their citizens to gamble without mentioning that the government has a conflict of interest since no small amount of the money spent on gambling comes back to the government as a substitute for taxes.

There is something unseemly and unworthy when an American city or state urges its citizens to gamble. The Commission on Gambling cannot deny that 1.1 million adolescents between the ages of 12 and 18 are pathological gamblers. But the recommendations of the Commission on Gambling are mild, unrealistic and almost incidental to the report.

Religious bodies in America have in recent years made virtually no comment on gambling. In June 1999 the Catholic Conference of Kentucky and other church groups sought to mobilize opposition to the expansion of gambling in Kentucky. But the legislators are unlikely to reverse the trend toward casinos in a state that allows pari-mutuel betting on horse racing.

No one asserts that gambling is a simple black and white moral issue. But the moral implications of allowing it to continue to explode are profound.

The Christian Science Monitor said it well in a recent editorial: “A nation that fosters a reliance on chance and officially endorses a culture of irresponsibility all in the name of increased state revenues and free enterprise is certainly playing games with its moral foundations.”

Jesuit Fr. Robert Drinan is a professor at Georgetown University Law Center.

National Catholic Reporter, August 13, 1999