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Gambling: an American love/hate story

Behind the Massachusetts casino kerfuffle is a country that’s always been torn about whether to trust Lady Luck

Jason Raish for the boston globe

This November, Massachusetts voters will decide on a question of lasting significance to the state’s cultural and economic landscape: whether to repeal a law that allows the construction of three resort casinos and a slot parlor across the state. The law was the subject of years of intense debate before it passed in 2011, and the stage is now set for an even louder, messier conversation. Over the next few months, the casino industry and its critics are expected to spend millions to convince voters either that casinos will be a lasting boon to the economy, or a scourge that depresses property values and preys on addicts and the poor.

Polling suggests a measure that is truly up for grabs. A Boston Globe poll in June found support for the current casino law at 52 percent, with opposition at just 41 percent. But another recent poll from Suffolk University found a 14 percentage-point drop in casino approval since February. “I think it’s 50-50. It could go either way,” said Clyde Barrow, outgoing director of the Center for Policy Analysis at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth and a consultant for the casino industry.


The debate is taking place at a moment when legalized gambling is spreading throughout the United States. As recently as the 1970s, state lotteries were rare and casinos were illegal nearly everywhere in the United States. Today, some form of gambling is allowed in every state but Utah and Hawaii, with casinos in 39 of them. In 2005, gambling industry revenues were about $85 billion, more than Americans spent on concerts, books, or movie tickets.

This might sound like a dramatic, one-way shift in national attitudes. In fact, though, it’s only the latest swing of a pendulum for a country that sometimes adores Lady Luck and sometimes shuns her. In the country’s earliest years, many forms of gambling were banned and morally condemned—but others were so well established that they helped finance major American institutions, including prominent universities and public works.


Massachusetts’ own history is a perfect example of this ambivalence: The Massachusetts Bay Colony originally outlawed cards and dice, and the state’s Puritan heritage may help explain its ongoing wariness toward casinos. On the other hand, John Hancock himself sponsored a lottery to rebuild Faneuil Hall after a fire in 1761, and some of the earliest public opinion polling, in the 1950s, found the Northeast the friendliest region toward gambling, and a state lottery has thrived here since the 1970s.

Legal scholar I. Nelson Rose has argued that the country is currently in its third wave of legalized gambling, after the first two crashed and left us in periods of prohibition. This constant vacillation could be viewed as a puzzle, or even a weakness. Why can’t we make up our minds? But there’s a reason: Gambling lies precisely on the fault line between two important national values. The centuries-long debate over gambling is really a clash between the deeply American principle that hard work is what should be rewarded, and the equally ingrained one that big payoffs come to those who take big risks. Our current romance with legalized gambling suggests that this is one moment when chance and uncertainty are on the rise.

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In “Democracy in America,” Alexis de Tocqueville compared the American economy to a “vast lottery,” populated by people who “make a kind of virtue of commercial recklessness.” The historian John Findlay has argued that the urge to sail to an unseen continent (and then to push westward) is similar to the urge to gamble: The hazards are extraordinarily high, but so are the potential rewards. An appetite for risk, in other words, is part of the country’s essential character.


But caution, self-control, and the belief that one should work for one’s money are deeply rooted here, too. The Puritan view was that gambling was a waste, a grave offense to the values of diligence and sobriety. “There is much Sin and Provocation to God” in games of chance, prominent Massachusetts minister Increase Mather wrote in 1687. Mather also warned of a “secret curse” afflicting many gamblers who were “bewitched with a Gaming Humor, as that they will lose their Friends, Esteem, Estate and every thing else that’s desirable, rather then play no more at Cards.” Losing at gambling was disgraceful; winning was hardly better, because it upended the notion that work was the proper route to wealth.

But Puritan censoriousness couldn’t stamp out all games of chance. Officially sanctioned lotteries funded an incredible range of institutions in the Colonial era. All 13 of the original Colonies used them to raise money for public projects; according to one count, more than 160 different lotteries were authorized between 1744 and 1774. Participation was a kind of civic duty, much like lotteries and raffles today that fund education and other worthy public causes, as economists Charles Clotfelter and Philip Cook have pointed out. Lottery proceeds built libraries, churches, hospitals, and jails.


State-licensed lotteries initiated by private citizens and institutions also helped launch or expand universities, including Harvard, Yale, Dartmouth, and William and Mary. When Yale’s president heard in 1747 that New York had approved a lottery to raise funds for what would become Columbia University, he lamented it was “probable, considering the Humour of Mankind, that Considerable Sums of Money will go out of this Government to build a college there.” Yale received the first lottery license from the state of Connecticut that year. (Echoes of this arms race can be heard in the contemporary fretting that Massachusetts is losing revenue to casinos in Connecticut.)

Casinos and card-playing, too, were popular in these early years, despite religious sanctions. As the country expanded west, the lower Mississippi River became the center of gambling culture, and the professional gambler became a familiar type: slick, seedy, and predatory. (Lynchings of professional gamblers in the South were not uncommon.) By the middle of the 19th century, the California gold rush would make San Francisco the new capital of gambling, which was already widespread in mining camps and frontier towns.

Meanwhile, a backlash—the first of many—was brewing. Social reformers attacked public lotteries on grounds ranging from their exploitation of the poor to widespread corruption scandals. Massachusetts stopped authorizing lotteries in 1833, and by the start of the Civil War only three states still allowed them. By the turn of the century, there were no more state-sponsored lotteries, and most states had clamped down on other forms of gambling, too. Like their colleagues in the temperance movement, antigambling crusaders successfully argued that gambling was harmful to the individual, families, and the culture, and was fundamentally at odds with middle-class propriety and self-control.


The Great Depression loosened some of these strictures, even as Prohibition curtailed gambling’s natural partner, drinking. Massachusetts, for example, decriminalized bingo in 1931 to allow churches and charities to boost their fund-raising. But overall, the first two-thirds of the 20th century were notable for their abstemiousness. Nevada opened its doors to casinos in 1931, but it took almost a half-century for Atlantic City to follow.

By the 1970s, the pendulum had begun to swing back toward legalization—often for the exact reason it had in the Colonies: States were desperate to find sources of revenues that didn’t rely on tax increases. New Hampshire sponsored its own lottery in 1964, reopening the lottery floodgates. The rise of Indian casinos in the 1980s, which the Supreme Court ruled in 1987 should be subject to Congress and the federal government, also tempted states to get into the game.

Historians have argued that the gambling pendulum is a way to see which ideas about America are in the ascendant: the individual or the community, luck or perseverance. In his 2003 book “Something for Nothing: Luck in America,” historian Jackson Lears writes about the battle between the “culture of chance” and the “culture of control” that runs through American history. In the decades in the middle of the 20th century—known for their prosperity, stability, and economic regulation—the culture of control dominated. The “organization man,” who devoted himself diligently to one company, served as an emblem of loyalty and discipline. Today, our political discourse is still rooted in the notion that every American is responsible for his own economic fate, and that prosperity is available to anyone disciplined enough to earn it.

By the 1970s, however, stable manufacturing jobs began to disappear and economic security was faltering. It was becoming less and less obvious that hard work was a decent bet. The rising profile of Wall Street in the 1980s contributed to the sense that speculation plays a significant role in generating wealth even for the rich, and the “organization man” started to look like a chump. It is no coincidence, says Lears, that the “new Gilded Age” beginning in the late 20th century mirrored the last one’s openness to gambling. “The rise of legalized gambling is a logical and natural response to the pervasive sense of economic insecurity people feel, and the sense that there is no connection between hard work and material reward,” he said. “Lotteries and casinos and gambling more generally are a kind of hope maintenance tax that people pay to tell themselves that ‘There’s a tear in the social fabric, but I can look through and see freedom and possibility on the other side.’”

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In a politically polarized landscape, gambling is an oddity: Attitudes toward it do not track along traditional party lines. In Massachusetts, one need only look at the way it’s become an issue in the governor’s race. Democratic candidate Donald M. Berwick has been a vocal opponent of casinos; Democratic front-runner Martha Coakley tried to prevent the repeal vote from her present position as attorney general, and has said she will vote against the repeal. A third Democratic candidate, Treasurer Steve Grossman, supports casinos. The Republican candidates are also split: Charlie Baker has said repealing the casino law would be “highly disruptive and unfair,” while Mark Fisher supports the repeal effort.

Barrow says the strongest opponents to casinos are those with “evangelical zeal” on the far right and far left. For the left, one argument is that state-promoted gambling is essentially a regressive tax on the poor. On the right, free-market proponents are generally welcoming, but social conservatives tend to share liberals’ concern about gambling’s destructive effects on communities and family life. The Institute for American Values, a nonprofit that is generally socially conservative, launched a major initiative last year warning of casinos’ corrosive effects.

The broadly libertarian mood in the middle, however, is that gambling is a personal choice and a form of entertainment. “Gambling is pretty far down the list of things that most people care about,” said David Schwartz, a casino consultant and director of the Center for Gaming Research at the University of Nevada Las Vegas. “There’s the idea that if you’re an adult and you want to gamble your money, it’s not the state’s business to tell you what you want to do.”

Still, our notion of “the state’s business” can shift as our moral boundaries do. “Thirty years ago or 40 years ago, smoking was fashionable and gambling was something rogues did,” said Erik Owens, associate director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life at Boston College. “That’s completely flipped now.” (Owens coedited a 2009 collection, “Gambling: Mapping the American Moral Landscape,” prompted by a conference at Boston College.) In a 2008 national poll, less than a third of respondents who said they believed in “sin” said that gambling is sinful—just 1 percentage point more than said it’s a sin to tell a “little white lie.”

Lears suggests that gambling is a window into the state of the larger cultural battle between chance and control. Today, he says, we’re in an era that lionizes risk and “disruption” over the kind of self-control and stability that have proved ephemeral—or just plain useless—in the current economy. Our business idol is no longer the organization man; it’s the free-range entrepreneur.

As the polls indicate, centuries after the earliest American expressions of ambivalence about gambling, we’re still torn: We like the idea that anyone can strike it rich, but we’re cynical about it, too. We lionize risk-takers, but we also believe that honest hard work should be a path to success. “It’s fair to say we have a deeply divided psyche in this country,” Lears said.

Given our history, it’s a safe bet that the pendulum will eventually swing back. The question, for those putting their chips on casinos in Massachusetts, is whether that swing will happen as soon as November.

Ruth Graham, a writer in New Hampshire, is a regular contributor to Ideas.