In May of 2018, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned a ban on sports betting enacted in 1992. Essentially, “The law the decision overturned — the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act — prohibited states from authorising sports gambling.” Now, with gratitude to the high court, each state has the autonomy to choose for itself whether sports betting is an activity it will legalise.

Many of the positions relating to gambling focus on the positive aspects. For example, gambling is a “huge, huge fan engagement tool,” Brandt said, “the average NFL fan who is a non-bettor watches about 15-16 games a year. The average NFL fan who is a bettor watches 45-50 games a year.” As Totenberg said, “But most experts expect a majority of the states to legalise sports betting in the next year or two, thus providing the states with a new and needed tax revenue stream.”

Mark Cuban, owner of the Dallas Mavericks basketball team, theorised that sports gambling will have “doubled the value of the professional sports franchises in a second… it will increase interest, it will add to what happens in our arena and in stadiums. It will increase the viewership for our biggest customers online and on TV.”

As Dan Etna, a sports law attorney, said:

“Let’s face it: You’re still gonna be competing with the underground economy of bookies and whatnot. . . It’s not user-friendly. It’s not totally convenient. So I think that you’re not gonna see these big Palazzos of sports arising from the ground to handle sports betting. I think this is gonna be a largely, predominant digital platform.”

Tax revenue, increased fan engagement, and convenience are among the positive attributes linked to legalised sports gambling.

The benefits aren’t without risk. Most people are aware of the traditional problems associated with gambling. These problems are of a humane nature, issues intrinsic to the human condition. These issues relate to the fact that men and women have unruly passions and appetites inside of each and every one of us. These passions and appetites necessitate restraints. Gambling is one of these unruly vices, and legal prohibitions served as restraints.

Edmund Burke noted:

“Men are qualified for civil liberty in exact proportion to their disposition to put moral chains upon their own appetite. Society cannot exist, unless a controlling power upon will and appetite be placed somewhere; and the less of it there is within, the more there must be without.”

Burke understood that our passions and appetites necessitate restraints, lest they run amok. He maintained, as he said: “It is ordained in the eternal constitution of things, that men of intemperate minds cannot be free. Their passions forge their fetters.” We are our own worst enemies, and we create our own demons.

Burke believed that by removing the restraints in our lives, it creates “a life of absolute licence,” which “tends to turn men into savages.” He further felt that when you, “Leave a man to his passions… you leave a wild beast to his wild and capricious nature.”

The notion that men and women have unruly passions and appetites that necessitate restraints is a subject traditionally taught in the liberal arts curriculum. Sadly, enrollment in classic liberal arts and the humanities in general are in decline, so fewer people are benefiting from their lessons.

The liberal arts are valuable not because they teach us to be free, but because: “Quite the contrary, art was not a matter of originality, inspiration, and genius but of rules, order and discipline.” The liberal arts channel our passions and appetites to help us walk the straight and narrow path of life. Like Burke, the practitioners of the liberal arts understood that.

In this scheme of things, art was a rule giving or legislative activity; art and its rules were the means of creating and maintaining order in human life generally, of subjecting our unruly passions to reason and directing them to orderly and useful ends of whatever kind.

Human beings necessitate restraints, for when they are removed, we lead ourselves astray. Hence, the goal of liberal education: restraint on our vices to prevent us from defeating ourselves.

Many people have no doubt heard the phrase, ‘arts and letters,’ but few can accurately define it. This phrase is shorthand for liberal arts and humane letters. Humane letters, as an academic discipline, is the study of what it means to be a human being. As Russell Kirk, American historian and philosopher, explained; the goal of an education in humane letters is, “the study of the greatness and limitations of human nature.” The goal of an education in humane letters is the study of human nature and our humane strengths and weaknesses.

An educated person in arts and letters will take those values and lessons with them no matter the venue, including the business world and the free-market. In A Humane Economy: the Social Framework of the Free Market, Wilhelm Ropke articulated that:

“Self-discipline, a sense of justice, honesty, fairness, chivalry, moderation, public spirit, respect for human dignity, firm ethical norms – all of these are things which people must possess before they got to market and compete with each other. These are indispensable supports which preserve both market and competition from degeneration… highest interests of the community and the indispensable things of life have no exchange value and are neglected if supply and demand are allowed to dominate the field.”

When we ignore the humane element, we ignore in large part what it means to be a human being. When we only care about profits, costs, and competition, the free market we so cherish begins to corrode and rot from within. It will eventually collapse on itself, our passions forging our fetters.

When it comes to gambling, what does it mean to be a human being? What is the humane element? How are real world human beings going to engage the gambling world? As Etna said earlier, human beings today will gamble digitally. We’re going to use online gambling websites and apps on our mobile phones. We’ll be able to gamble anytime, anywhere, on any event, no matter the distance.

But that’s not the real issue when it comes to digital gambling. Modern neuroscience tells us we have more to worry about than the traditional problems and issues associated with gambling. Modern neuroscience illuminated a portion of the brain called the insula. The insula is associated with loss. When we experience loss, our insula informs us of our loss by ‘stinging’ us.

For example, if you walk into a department store to buy a $200 pair of designer jeans, you bring the pants up to the register and begin the payment process. As you pull out the cash from your wallet, you count the money in your head. As each bill is extracted and counted, your insula informs you that you are losing money. This often makes a person second guess a purchase decision, or refrain from the purchase entirely due to your insula telling you this is a significant loss.

Now here’s the real kicker: when things become abstract, your insula is anesthetised. For example, if you pay by debit or credit card, the insula is neutralised. Despite the absence of the insula’s sting, the loss still occurs. Just ask anyone with student loan debt. The money goes from the government directly to the university without touching the students’ hands. The action is abstract and the sting absent, but the debt is very real.

Our smart devices, whether a phone, computer, or other piece of technology, allow us to gamble anytime, anywhere, on any event in a completely abstract nature. We will not feel the sting of the loss, and our passions will forge our fetters.

Interestingly, Mark Cuban, the man who sees sports gambling as something that has, “doubled the value of the professional sports franchises in a second,” said something quite contradictory just last year. He said,  “I personally think there’s going to be a greater demand in 10 years for liberal arts majors than there were for programming majors and maybe even engineering… you need a different perspective.” Cuban values someone who is, “more of a free thinker.” Something a liberal arts education teaches.

Yet, when it came to sports gambling, his focus was not the humane economy, but rather profits. This is exactly what Burke understood: that in each and everyone of us, there are passions and appetites that necessitate restraints. No matter who we are, where we are from, what time-period it is, how wealthy and successful we are, or how smart we are, those passions and appetites are present.

The digital age is no different. Burke believed that the:

“Inclinations of men should frequently be thwarted, their will controlled, and their passions brought into subjection. This can only be done by a power out of themselves; and not, in the exercise of its function, subject to that will and to those passions which it is its office to bridle and subdue. In this sense the restraints on men, as well as their liberties, are to be reckoned among their rights.”

We have the right not just to be free, but the right to be restrained. It is important that we view restraint in the same capacity that we view freedom.

Gambling in the digital age is an unruly passion and appetite divorced from the sting of loss. It is something that Burke understood necessitates restraint. Our politicians and judges are failing to view our restraints as rights in the same manner that our liberties are perceived. Burke, even in his day, had the hot-tip on the action. When it comes to gambling in the digital age, always bet on Burke.

Posted by Steven Kessler

One Comment

  1. Great article which every university academic (especially those who teach about financial markets) should absorb.


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