On 14 May 2018 the United States Supreme Court, in what amounts to a revolutionary decision, ruled 6-3 against a 1992 federal law prohibiting sports betting in most U.S. states. Justice Samuel Alito explained the decision in terms of state’s rights: “The legalization of sports gambling requires an important policy choice, but the choice is not ours to make. Congress can regulate sports gambling directly, but if it elects not to do so, each state is free to act on its own.” While this is a strong blow against the centralizing tendencies of Washington which have become more prominent in the last eight years, it is also a strong blow against the orthodox view of gambling in the United States. Indeed, this was a long time coming.

The absurdity of prohibiting sports gambling in the United States has not been lost on those of us who travel. In the summer of 2016 I was watching the European football championships with a group of British travelers in Seville, Spain, who found it absurd that in the United States Americans, over eighteen, could buy a rifle yet could not wager even a few “quid” on a football match (or baseball game. Or NBA game. Or NFL game). Yet, it seems as if at least five states have recently passed legislation regarding sports betting so–in terms of state’s rights—sports gambling might become legal in a few states in the not-too-distant future.

 

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A State-by-State Breakdown on a Very Technocratic Map. Image Courtesy Of: http://www.espn.com/chalk/story/_/id/22516292/gambling-ranking-every-us-state-current-position-legalizing-sports-betting

 

But why has this change been so long in coming? Eminent Norwegian-American Sociologist and Economist Thorstein Veblen’s The Theory of the Leisure Class might give us some insight into this. Beyond the Black Sox scandal of 1919, Veblen shows that an aversion to gambling is part of modern industrial society. Veblen explains that “the chief factor in the gambling habit is the belief in luck” and this belief is “an archaic trait, inherited from a more or less remote past, more or less incompatible with the requirements of the modern industrial process, and more or less of a hindrance to the fullest efficiency of the collective economic life of the present” (Veblen 1953[1899]: 183). Indeed, this belief in luck is incompatible with industrial society because it threatens its mechanical—and ultimately rational—nature. Veblen explains:

 

The industrial organization assumes more and more of the character of a mechanism, in which it is man’s office to discriminate and select what natural forces shall work out their effects in his service. The workman’s part in industry changes from that of a prime mover to that of discrimination and valuation of quantitative sequences and mechanical facts. The faculty of a ready apprehension and unbiased appreciation of causes in his environment grows in relative economic importance and any element in the complex of his habits of thought which intrudes a bias at variance with this ready appreciation of matter-of-fact sequence gains proportionately in importance as a disturbing element acting to lower his industrial usefulness. Through its cumulative effect upon the habitual attitude of the population, even a slight or inconspicuous bias towards accounting for everyday facts by recourse to other ground than that of quantitative causation may work an appreciable lowering of the collective industrial efficiency of a community (Veblen 1953[1899]: 187-188).

 

In short, Veblen tells us that any belief in luck “counts as a blunder in the apprehension and valuation of facts” for science and technology (Veblen 1953[1899]: 190).

Given that science and technology are the bedrocks of the rational and technocratic society which defines the modern world, luck—like individual creativity and emotions—cannot be celebrated without threatening the basic foundational logic of modern industrial (and especially post-industrial, or digital) society. Perhaps this is one possible reason why the United States has waited almost 26 years to overturn a federal ban on sports betting, giving the decision back to individual states. While this is certainly a victory for states rights—and a blow to the centralization of the American state—it is also a victory for the rule of law. As ESPN journalist David Purdum notes, the black market for sports betting already makes 150 billion USD annually. If the government can tax such betting then it could offer some states an important form of income, even if it threatens the sensibilities of a rational and “modern” society.

 

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Mr. Veblen Himself. Image Courtesy Of: http://booksyouwillneverread.com/a-review-of-the-theory-of-the-leisure-class/
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