By John David Dyche
Ross Douthat, the conservative New York Times columnist, recently published a provocative piece titled "Pot and Jackpots." It has immediate implications for Kentucky.
Douthat considers how casino gambling and marijuana, like gay marriage, have so rapidly "gone mainstream over the last generation." He attributes the shift in attitudes to "the rise of a live-and-let-live social libertarianism, the weakening influence of both religious conservatism and liberal communitarianism, [and] the growing suspicion of moralism in public policy."
"What seems like a harmless pleasure to the comfortable can devastate the poor and weak," Douthat notes, adding that "pot and slots" can "simply distract their minds, dull their senses and make them easier to rule." Liberals, with "their anxieties about inequality," should beware of how liberties like these "can grease the skids for exploitation, with a revenue-hungry state partnering with the private sector to profiteer off human weakness," he warns.
Kentucky has not yet seen a broad, credible movement to legalize marijuana as Colorado and Washington have, to approve medical marijuana, or to decriminalize possession of small quantities. But whether the advocates of industrial hemp meant to or not, their success in legalizing that cannabis cousin portends a day when the commonwealth will confront the trend toward more lenient marijuana laws.
Before Steve Beshear became "Governor Obamacare" he promised he would pass expanded gambling in Kentucky. He has not done it, of course, but may try again in the next legislative session.
Kentucky Wins, a broad-based, bipartisan group chaired by big-hitters Jonathan Blue, Junior Bridgeman, Joe Craft, Robert Evans, Ed Glasscock, Kelly Knight, and Terry McBrayer, is aggressively backing an expanded gaming constitutional amendment. The group's honorary co-chairs include agriculture commissioner James Comer, a likely Republican gubernatorial candidate in 2015, and auditor Adam Edelen, a likely Democratic contender.
The proliferation of casino gambling to 39 states, including 5 bordering Kentucky, complicates the case for those who oppose casinos here. Expansionists argue that since Kentuckians can so easily gamble at other states' casinos already, and since any social costs are therefore already a risk, Kentucky should at least get some money out of the process.
Kentucky Wins cites a 2012 study estimating that by 2015 Kentuckians will spend $527 million in casinos elsewhere. They want to keep this money in state and use revenues from it "for valuable projects without the need for costly tax increases."
In a recent CNN.com column, David Frum, a former special assistant to President George W. Bush, argued that casinos target "those who can least afford to lose," "act as parasites" on local economies, have negative impact on property values, and "shift the cost of government from the richer to the poorer." Frum, a very smart fellow who is not a bleeding heart, a prude, nor a religious zealot, urges people in non-casino states to fight to keep them that way.
He relies on a recent report issued by the Institute for American Values. The IAV's mission is to "study and strengthen civil society," which it defines as "the web of relationships and associations that mediates between the person and the state."
That report, "Why Casinos Matter: Thirty-One Evidence-Based Propositions from the Health and Social Sciences," compares the "institutional eruption" of casinos to the rapid expansions of fast food chains and payday lenders. Once rare, they are increasingly everywhere.
Among the report's propositions are that state sponsorship of casinos "creates a stratified pattern that parallels the separate and unequal life patterns in education, marriage, work, and play that increasingly divide America into haves and have-nots." Think Charles Murray's recent book Coming Apart.
The report says the casino issue is not a narrow one about the morality of gambling, but poses broader and more important questions of public policy. It concludes that "American casinos are associated with a range of negative health, economic, political, intellectual, and social outcomes" and that "state sponsorship of casino gambling" is "a regressive and damaging policy."
Douthat followed his column with a blog post saying that the pot and gambling movements illustrate "the rationalizing impulse in modern American politics, which seeks perfect fairness and consistency at the expense of compromises rooted in the accidents of history, and which makes it hard for conservatives to defend older, inherently arbitrary arrangements even when they make practical sense."
But limits on certain activities may be socially useful even if they are inconsistent or illogical, he says.
This columnist has previously expressed support for expanded gambling and relaxed marijuana laws. Other columnists are now causing this one to reconsider.
John David Dyche is a Louisville attorney and political commentator for WDRB.com. His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.