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Was Dostoyevsky a Simpleton?
Reflections on Gambling
H. David Baer

Some months ago I watched a report on 60 Minutes titled “The Big Gamble” (January 2011). It documented the way an increasing number of states, at least thirty-eight, are using slot machines, constructed like video games and highly addictive, to raise public revenue. According to the report, there are twice as many slot machines in America today as ATM’s. At one point, Leslie Stahl interviews Ed Rendell, former governor of the state of Pennsylvania, which has come to rely increasiwngly on gambling proceeds to fill the public coffers. Stahl asks Rendell whether Pennsylvania, by sponsoring gambling, might not be exacerbating the problem of gambling addiction. Rendell replies that since the addicts are going to gamble anyway, the state should “get the upside” of that addiction by collecting revenue from the money they are going to lose one way or another. When pressed with a series of questions, Governor Rendell grows visibly impatient, then turns to the camera and says, “You folks just don’t get it. You’re simpletons if you don’t get this.”

As a viewer who had been thinking Leslie Stahl’s questions were pretty good, the governor’s comment struck me as unfair at first, but then he seemed so confident that I began to wonder if he might not be right. Perhaps those who have criticized gambling over the ages have failed to understand something Gov. Rendell has figured out. My mind turned to that supposedly great Russian writer Fyodor Dostoyevsky, whose novella The Gambler examines the psychology of gambling in ways I had previously considered insightful. Could it be that Dostoyevsky was a simpleton?! I decided I would re-read the book to make sure I hadn’t been taken in by the reputation of its author.   

The novella tells the story of a young Russian tutor, Alexei, who lives in Germany in the employ of a wealthy Russian household and who becomes addicted to gambling. In fact, gambling impinges on the life of every character in the book, the majority of whom are in some sort of desperate circumstance. Alexei himself is in love with Polina, daughter-in-law of the “General,” who is head of the household employing Alexei. Polina secretly loves Alexei, but hides her true feelings because she must entertain the attentions of a Frenchman to whom the General is indebted. The General, who cannot pay his debts, does, however, happen to have a well-to-do aunt, whom the characters refer to as “Grandmother.” Grandmother is mortally ill and expected to die in time for the General to use the inheritance to pay off his debts. In the meantime, the characters turn to gambling. Polina sends Alexei to the casino to play roulette on her behalf, presumably because the winnings, should there be any, will help to pay off the family’s debt and free her from the Frenchman’s attentions. Alexei turns to gambling in hopes that by winning big, he will become an acceptable suitor for Polina. Then, suddenly, Grandmother arrives in town, perfectly healthy and fully aware that the General has been waiting for her demise. She announces publicly that he’ll never receive any of her money, and asks Alexei to take her to the casino. There, at the game of roulette, she stubbornly and repeatedly places her bets on “zero.” To the stupefaction of everyone, she wins repeatedly, taking home an enormous sum of money at the end of the day. Unfortunately, she has also caught the gambling bug. She returns again to the casino the following day and this time starts losing. Determined to regain her losses, she continues to play until she bets away her entire fortune. Her heirs are left in financial ruin.

Having re-read the book, I decided, no, Dostoyevsky was not a simpleton, that in fact his book is a subtle and insightful inquiry into the psychology of gambling. Part of the attraction of gambling, according to Dostoyevsky, appears to be the prospect of a windfall, offering a quick fix to life’s intractable problems. Part of the attraction appears to rest also on the heightened sense of self that comes from taking risks. But of course these attractions are built on a set of falsehoods and illusions.

Roulette

Gambling offers an illusion of hope that builds on a false sense of personal destiny. The gambler seeks to harness providence and manipulate fate in order to manufacture a windfall. He is certain he will win, and when he does (for sometimes he must), the gambler is filled with a sense of accomplishment. Those who witness his winnings marvel at and congratulate him. The gambler himself takes the winnings to be the result of his own cleverness, the product of a system he devised to beat the odds, or perhaps a divinely inspired intuition. In his own eyes, the gambler is not only clever and charmed, but also brave. He had the courage to risk everything, to stake his life on a single turn of the wheel. Such courage allows him to achieve a success that eludes the hard worker. At one point, Dostoyevsky’s gambler, Alexei, argues that the game of roulette is especially suited for Russians: “we Russians often need money; wherefore, we are glad of, and greatly devoted to, a method of acquisition like roulette—whereby, in a couple of hours, one may grow rich without doing any work.” Perhaps the successful gambler’s greatest achievement is that God has bestowed him with success. The gambler is the recipient of a divine gift; he gets something for nothing.

Once upon a time, psychological insights like these were the source of moral objections to gambling. Gambling, because it sought to manipulate destiny, was related to idolatry. Gambling, because it reinforced a false sense of self, was related to the sins of both pride and sloth. Gambling, because it was corrosive of character and sometimes destructive, created social costs that a society with moral fiber ought not to countenance. But of course, that was back in the time of the Puritans, in the day of the scarlet letter, before our present age of enlightenment. Today, anyone making religious or moral criticisms of gambling might be labeled a “simpleton” by Gov. Rendell.

Perhaps, though, I am being unfair. Perhaps the problem was only with Gov. Rendell’s choice of words rather than his logic. One has to admit a certain sense to the argument which says, “Since they are going to do it anyway, why not get the upside?” To protest against such an argument one would need to be committed to subtle moral distinctions, like the one between intending evil and permitting it. Perhaps instead of calling his opponents “simpletons,” Gov. Rendell should have called them “Jesuits,” since Jesuits have a long history of drawing distinctions. One might grant that addicts gamble anyway. Even so, we could distinguish between a government that, on the one hand, participates directly in the activity of gambling by enabling access to casinos and even operating gambling operations, and a government, on the other hand, that allows gambling to take place because it cannot easily prevent it. In one case, government sponsors gambling; in the other case, it merely tolerates it. The principle “they are going to do it anyway, why not get the upside,” might just as easily apply to government sponsored brothels, the government sale of narcotics, or direct government participation in any business that thrives on human weakness.

“Why not get the upside” is not a principle of good government with long philosophical pedigree. Its relationship to the tradition of liberal democracy is unclear. According to one very common understanding of that tradition, the purpose of government is to create and sustain the ordered public space in which private persons can, individually and collectively, pursue the good freely, without political intrusion. But state sponsored gambling is a public business, one that encroaches on the private sector. After all, the money people spend on gambling is money they don’t spend on other forms of entertainment, like on movies, restaurants, or sporting events. State lotteries and slot machines could even be considered a quasi-nationalized industry. And if the government is prepared to operate in the entertainment business, why not get involved in other lucrative businesses? Perhaps instead of taxing alcoholic beverages, the government should start selling them. Think of the upside if the State of Pennsylvania would only sell beer to compete with Pabst Blue Ribbon and Samuel Adams; beers like “Ben Franklin’s Pale Ale” and “Liberty Lager.”

But come to think of it, maybe Gov. Rendell didn’t intend the term “simpleton” to be pejorative at all. Maybe he wanted to say that using gambling to raise public revenue is such a simple strategy that every simpleton should approve. After all, gambling offers an easy solution to one of the most intractable political problems of our day: how to raise revenue without raising taxes. State sponsored gambling allows citizens to enjoy public goods without shouldering the burdens of paying for them. Schools, roads, and police and fire departments can all be had without sacrifice. A society which fills its public coffers with gambling revenue has figured out how to get something for nothing. Perhaps Gov. Rendell only wanted to reassure viewers with a nagging, vague sense that financing public goods with gambling revenue might be public policy built on illusion. “Look it’s simple,” he should have said, “as any simpleton can simply see.”

 

H. David Baer is Associate Professor of Theology and Philosophy at Texas Lutheran University.

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