Betting the House
BY C. L. BOTHWELL III
I don't see too much wrong with gambling. What's the harm in placing a friendly bet on a football game or an election result? Betcha' five dollars the Mets will beat the Panthers at backgammon. This time I might win, next time it could be you.
Organized gambling, though, is a whole 'nuther ball of wax. Most particularly organized, advertised gambling. And even more particularly organized, advertised gambling run by governments. I suspect it is a bad business for everyone concerned.
We do ourselves a great disservice when we promote the idea that success is a matter of luck, that money has value in itself and that huge jackpots lurk just around the bend. Lotteries, sweepstakes and slot machines weaken the fabric of community by dividing us into winners and losers instead of including everyone in the common work of life. We all wait for the ship to come in and no one bothers to build boats. If you might win $40 million tomorrow, what exactly is the point in making 40 bucks today?
The difference, of course, lies in work. Work is central to the story we write about ourselves, the story we call our lives. I'm not talking Puritan ethics here, noses to eternal grindstones, exalting in toil. Rather, it is how we spend our days, who we are and who we become.
If I lay a stone or dig a drainage ditch, the stone and the ditch are still there afterward and the process remains part of me. This is true of less tangible pursuits as well: repairing a phone line, defending a client, pumping gas, extinguishing a fire, running a city government, ringing a register or teaching.
Doing shapes the doer most of all. Money is a convenient medium for exchanging what we have created, but it is not the creation. A person who wins $40 million is not at all the same as the person who earns it. We live in a star-studded culture and marvel at the huge salaries paid to quarterbacks and screen idols. Isn't Michael Jordan lucky? Substitute names. Isn't Michael Eisner lucky? Isn't Michael Jackson lucky? Isn't Mikail Baryshnikov lucky? Isn't Michael Crichton lucky?
Maybe. And maybe they are overpaid. But they all worked, and worked hard, to get where they are. Running a casino is work too, and I don't doubt that those who run the bars and restaurants in a casino can take pride in jobs well done. But beyond the immediate chore in any job lies its larger meaning. Making a useful contribution to life is innate.
Ecology has revealed that living systems reward cooperation. It is no accident that healthy ecosystems are resilient and stable. Life encourages life. The pride you feel when teamwork succeeds is not artificial. Community is the embodiment of that ethic. Most everybody wins because most everybody wins.
Organized gambling, on the other hand, demands that there be more losers than winners. Otherwise the organizer doesn't make a profit, which naturally enough is the whole reason for organizing the bets. If everyone does a good job, the great majority of patrons lose. Nothing is produced or repaired. Even the winners only get money which is entirely useless unless taken to the real world where workers produce something. If the winner sticks around it is pretty much inevitable that losing will follow.
We create governments for mutual benefit. The best laws are called Natural Laws, because they partake of the innate cooperativeness of life. When a government gets into the gambling business it is working against itself at a very basic level. It works against the general welfare, the domestic tranquility and the broad dispensation of justice that it was set up to ensure. That seems kind of dumb.
One researcher determined that to guarantee winning the California state lottery requires purchase of 50 tickets a day for 7,000 years. What we generally think of as our culture isn't that old yet. I sometimes wonder if a society that embraces luck instead of work can possibly have anywhere near that long a future.
Cecil Bothwell hails from the other Carolina. Duck Soup is served at 8:40 a.m. and 6:30 p.m. every Tuesday on WNCW 88.7FM Spindale, 100.7FM Charlotte, 95.5FM Beech Mountain,92.9FM Boone, NC, 97.3FM Greenville, SC, and 96.7FM Knoxville, TN.b