We Aren’t in Vegas Anymore

When future historians ponder the forces that unraveled the American social fabric between the 1960s and the 2020s, I hope they spare some time for one besetting vice in particular: our fatal impulse toward consistency.

This is a good weekend for thinking about that impulse, because Super Bowl Sunday is capping off a transition in big-time sports that has made the symbiosis between professional athletics and professional gambling all but complete. The cascading, state-after-state legalization of sports betting, the ubiquitous ads for online gambling in the football playoffs, the billion dollars that the National Football League hopes to soon be making annually from its deals with sports betting companies — everywhere you look, the thin wall separating the games from the gambling industry is being torn away.

This transformation will separate many millions of non-wealthy Americans from their money, very often harmlessly but in some cases disastrously, with a lot of sustainable-or-are-they gambling addictions falling somewhere in between. And we’ve reached this point, in part, because of our unwillingness to live with inconsistencies and hypocrisies instead of ironing them out, our inability to take a cautious step or two down a slippery slope without tobogganing to the bottom.

In the case of gambling, that tobogganing impulse meant that once we decided that some forms of gambling should be legally available, in some places, with some people profiting, it became inevitable that restrictions would eventually crumble on a much larger scale. The multi-generational path from Las Vegas and Atlantic City, to Native American casinos, to today’s ubiquitous online gambling looks like one continuous process, with no natural stopping place along the way.

But the trouble is that societal health often depends on law and custom not being perfectly consistent, not taking every permission to its logical conclusion.

In the case of gambling, some limited permission was always necessary: Betting will always be with us, it’s a harmless vice for many people, if you over-police it you’ll end up with an array of injustices.

But the easier it is to gamble, the more unhappy outcomes you’ll get. The more money in the industry, the stronger the incentives to come up with new ways to hook people and then bleed and ruin them. And all that damage is likely to fall disproportionately on the psychologically vulnerable and economically marginal, the strong preying on the weak.

So what you want, then, is for society to be able to say this far and no farther, even if the limiting principle is somewhat arbitrary. Did it make perfect rational sense to have the betting regime of my youth, where a couple of American cities were gambling havens for accidental historical reasons? Not really: If gambling is bad, it’s bad everywhere, and if it’s OK for Nevadans, why shouldn’t it be OK for everyone? And did it make constitutional sense for this arbitrary system to be partially propped up by a federal ban on state-sanctioned sports gambling? No, the Supreme Court decided in 2018, it does not.

But that contingent, somewhat irrational, arguably unconstitutional system nevertheless struck a useful balance, making gambling available without making it universal, encouraging Americans to treat the gambling experience as a holiday from the everyday, not seriously wicked but still a little bit shameful or indulgent — which is why it stays under the table, or in Vegas.

And in abandoning this approach, in rationalizing our gambling regime by making it ever more universal, we’re following the same misguided principle that we’ve followed in other cases. With pornography, for instance, where the difficulty of identifying a perfectly consistent rule that would allow the publication of “Lolita” but not Penthouse has led to a world where online porn doubles as sex education and it’s assumed that the internet will always be a sewer and we just have to live with it. Or now with marijuana, where the injustice and hypocrisy of the drug war made a good case for partial decriminalization, but stopping at decriminalization may be impossible when the consistent logic of commercialization beckons.

The reliability of this process doesn’t mean that it can never be questioned or reversed. Part of what we’ve witnessing from #MeToo-era feminism, for instance, is a backlash against the ruthless logic of an unregulated sexual marketplace, and a quest for some organic form of social regulation, some new set of imperfect-but-still-useful scruples and taboos.

But it’s a lot easier to tear down an inconsistent but workable system than it is to build a new one up from scratch — and the impulse to rebuild usually becomes powerful only once you’ve reached the bottom of consistency’s long slope.

I’m not sure where we are with gambling’s cultural trajectory. But every time this playoff season served up another ad for Caesars Sportsbook, it felt like a sign that we’ve accelerated downward, with a long way yet to fall.

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