THE MORALS OF GAMBLING

Nov 22, 1919

THE MORALS OF GAMBLING

    IT is an unfortunate fact that the moralists almost always rush in to denounce the wrong thing, or—to put it less ambiguously—that they almost always denounce things on the wrong grounds. What innocent pleasure is there that they have not made war on in the past? They have ingeminated against betting as against going to music-halls. They have spoken wrathfully of drinking a glass of beer no less than of dancing. They have made putting money on a horse seem a crime as terrible as fishing on Sunday. When one recalls the multitude of prohibitions under which civilised children have been brought up at various periods, one is amazed to find how much emphasis the moralists have laid on mere trifles. They have denounced the little dangers with far more passion than the great ones. They nave made mountains out of molehills, and have attacked what at the worst is inexpedient as though it were a sin. We may leave out of account such questions as whether it is right to fish on Sunday. Those who believe that it is a sin do so because they believe that it is so laid down in Holy Writ. This is an intelligible point of view. There is no casuistry in it. The attack on beer-drinking, on the theatre and on betting, however, cannot be based on the Scripture without a gross perversion of language. The teetotalers can find little to support them in the Bible, except a misinterpreted sentence from St. Paul. As for acting, we have heard a clergyman inveighing against it on the grounds that the actors, by pretending to be what they are not, by disguising themselves in wigs and paint, are in effect lying. It never seemed to strike him that the lady who sang Comin’ through the Rye at his Sunday-school soiree was also in a measure an impersonator, and therefore also a liar, and that he himself was something of a liar in so far as he put any dramatic feeling into his reading of the Book of Job. As for gambling, it has often been denounced on religious grounds as though it were forbidden by the commandment, “Thou shalt not steal.” It is an attempt, we are told, to get something for nothing and is therefore dishonest. Now, there is perhaps—and even probably—a great deal to be said against beer and the theatre and betting. But the case against all three, such as it is, is a utilitarian and not a moral case. Just at present, the question of the issue of Premium Bonds by the Government is being excitedly discussed as though it raised a great moral issue. This we believe to be a sheer waste of moral enthusiasm. If the movement for the issue of Premium Bonds is to be defeated, it should be defeated on grounds of public utility.

    We may admit at once that on grounds of public utility most States have at one time or another been compelled to take steps to restrict the general indulgence in gambling. It was not for Christian or Puritanical reasons that the Romans made dicing in public illegal. Whether the prohibition was effective we do not know. We fancy it was not. The Romans above most people worshipped the goddess Fortune. In the days of the Empire she was portrayed on coins and was an object of almost universal worship. She was, we may be sure, worshipped by thousands who were, but for her, atheists. In our own world today many people believe in her who believe in no other deity. We long for our children to have good fortune rather than their deserts. We long for ourselves to have good fortune rather than our deserts. Our dreams and day-dreams at their most golden do not picture us in receipt of a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work. They show us windfalls, unexpected bequests from people we have never heard of, pieces of enormous good luck. The present writer remembers how his heart sank when a palmist who was reading his hand said to him: ” You will succeed, but you will have to work for it.” It seemed a left-handed promise. One longs for success to drop out of the clouds, not to be paid for in eked-out sweat and groans. There is something intolerably prosaic in getting exactly as much as one has earned. Incidentally, it is a curious fact that, if the palmist had said merely “You will succeed,” leaving the means by which one was to succeed vague, her promise would have seemed magnificent. It was her making the means entirely honest that spoiled everything. It is also a curious fact that, even if one does not believe in palmistry, one has enough secret faith in the goddess Fortune to feel heartened or depressed, according as the promises are fair or gloomy. And, as we have already noted, a moderate promise is to be regarded as a gloomy promise. The devotees of the goddess Fortune scorn moderate gifts. There are two sorts of gamblers, indeed—those who play for safety, and so make a business of it, and those who play for great prizes, and so make a real gamble of it. We met a K.C. on the racecourse a few months ago who had been losing rather heavily. He said that he almost always lost money in betting because he never could bring himself to back the favourite, even when he felt sure it was going to win. He could take no interest in a bet of “even money” or at two to one. He could not help backing horses that had just a “sporting chance,” horses that started at “long prices”—ten to one, twenty to one, thirty-three to one. That is the true gambling spirit. It is not exciting to get ten pounds in return for a bet of ten pounds. It is immensely exciting to get two hundred pounds in return for a bet of ten pounds. It is because human nature yields in this matter to the larger excitement and the larger hope that the bookmakers grow rich. The gambler has no interest in getting a small return. He could get that by merely working for it. What he wants is to make a small fortune by backing an outsider or with a double event. He longs not only to get rich, but to get rich quick. He has a noble belief in miracles. He lives in the constant preparation for one. And it is not only on the racecourse that this passion exhibits itself. The most remarkable exhibitions of it, indeed, have taken place in the sphere of finance. The people who bought shares in the South Sea Company and in John Law’s Mississippi Company were optimists of exactly the same kind as the people who back horses. Speculation ran through Western Europe like a fever at that time, and it was possible to get money for almost any bogus enterprise, such as marketing a wheel for perpetual motion. So sanguine were the hopes of Frenchmen for Law’s Mississippi scheme that the price of shares rose to forty times their nominal value. Practically nothing was done to develop the Mississippi region, but a few disreputable colonists were sent out, and Indian dancers were brought to Paris as an advertisement of the scheme. Absorbed in their dreams of avarice, the French public believed all things were possible. “An expedition actually sailed,” Mr. Moreton Macdonald writes, in his History of France, “with the express object of finding an emerald rock of untold value, which was said to exist on the Arkansas River.” And all this madness, it is worth remembering, had semi-official sanction; at the height of it Law was made Controller-General of Finances, though born a Scotsman and a Protestant. The South Sea Company may also be described as semi-official, and, if Parliament favoured it, it was in the belief that it would be a means of unloading the national debt. Unhappily, there are not enough immense fortunes to go round, and all projects that start with the motto, “Every man a millionaire,” are destined to end in disaster. Speculation on the grand scale is merely a means of enabling the few to get rich at the expense of the many. It gives to the many a gorgeous dream in return for their savings. And, when it is all over, we doubt if they think they are well paid.

    It will be obvious to almost anybody that the gambling fever, whatever may be said of it morally, is a wasting fever. We may be forced to consider it an evil on these grounds, even if we cannot regard it as a crime. And it seems to us to be no more a crime than wearing jewellery. There is nothing virtuous in abstaining from playing auction bridge for penny points. The majority of people who play auction bridge get recreation, but no harm from it. One would imagine, to read the utterances of certain moralists, that every woman who played cards for money became indebted to a man and lost her virtue by it and that every man who did so ultimately forged a cheque. We fancy, however, that the ordinary card-player passes through life without either of these adventures. He plays for stakes that he can afford, and if he loses, is merely paying for his amusement. In the same way, it seems to us that it is possible to lose money on horses without being guilty of moral turpitude. There is no vice in betting in itself. When we hear that a great judge is a great gambler, few of us think that he should be impeached for it. We admit that few saints will be found playing cards for money, or backing horses. But that is not because either of these things is a sin in itself, but because saints have other things to do. It is probable that saints do not read the City page in the paper or eat chocolate éclairs, or bother about the colour of their socks. They are about more important business. From the point of view of a Savonarola, no doubt, all these things are of a sinful nature. Extreme Puritanism condemns all the vanities of the earth, and would have us submit ourselves to a strict asceticism. With them, not to be an ascetic is to be a sinner. And there is much to be said for their point of view. It is folly, however, for moralists to countenance the larger luxuries—great fortunes, large houses, estates and motor-cars—and to wax indignant at the lesser worldliness of the card-player and the racing-man. Anything that does not involve cruelty or meanness or the exploiting of one’s fellow men cannot be much of a sin. An egoist in business or in love will work far more evil than an ordinary easy-going fool at the card-table or on the racecourse.

    As we have said, however, betting is a most pernicious waster of men’s time. Many a gambler can think of little else; he can talk of little else; he can dream of little else. Gambling, when it reaches this point, may be regarded as a vice in the same way in which drunkenness is a vice. But the vast majority of gamblers are moderate gamblers, just as the vast majority of drinkers are moderate drinkers. Even so, the huge obsession of the minds of millions of men with thoughts of betting may fairly be regarded as a social misfortune. It is an immense waste of the national intelligence. Whether these men, if betting were made impossible, would suddenly begin to use their intelligence or would merely acquire what Lamb called an “equivalent vice,” raises another question. The odd thing is that, in England, betting on horses, which is the most absorbing and time-wasting of all forms of betting, is permitted with few protests. True, it is made illegal to visit a bookmaker and to give him money by hand. It is legal, however, to bet with him by telephone, telegram, or letter. The poor man’s bookmaker is pursued from public-house to public-house. The respectable man’s bookmaker is a businessman basking in the smiles of the law.

    We doubt if Premium Bonds would lead to nearly so much idleness as betting on horses, but that, of course, would not be very much in their favour. They would undoubtedly divert the national imagination (in so far as they affected it) into wasteful instead of productive enterprises. There have been Government-patronised lotteries in England before. At the end of the seventeenth century, however, all lotteries were prohibited as nuisances that led to the ruin of children, servants, and other unwary persons. Parliament, none the less, continued to raise money by means of lotteries all through the eighteenth century until public opinion insisted on their prohibition in 1826. America also began with a national lottery in 1776, and the last lottery was not suppressed in the United States till 1890. Other countries too have been forced to suppress them, though they have flourished in a country so free from corruption, in the ordinary sense, as Germany. The question Members of Parliament will have to decide next week is not whether betting is a sin, but whether, in the form of Premium Bonds, it is likely to be a nuisance. The opponents of Premium Bonds will, in our opinion, influence far more votes if they prove that this means of raising money is inexpedient, as Sir Robert Kindersley maintains it is, than if they behave as if they had discovered a new sin. If Premium Bonds are a sin, then every risky investment is a sin, and every raffle is a sin. Let us keep the word “sin” for the really wicked things.

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