WHEN I heard recently that legalized gambling was spreading to the Midwest and the Bible belt, I asked a friend in the legislature why his colleagues promoted it. Few legislators want to, he explained patiently, but many states -- especially those with farm and oil-based economies -- really need the added tax revenue.
``What happened to raising tax revenues in ways that help curb socially questionable behaviour, like smoking and drinking?'' I asked.
``That kind of thinking is pass'e: It has devastating consequences.''
``Devastating? What do you mean?''
``Well, it would make sense to raise the gasoline tax to help conserve petroleum if you just wanted people to drive less. But driving less is practically un-American.''
I pointed out that all this driving uses up energy and creates pollution and traffic congestion. My friend agreed this could be a problem but insisted that major industries would be created -- urban planning and pollution control -- which would ensure jobs for our children.
``Is staying competitive worth creating the pollution and congestion?'' I asked.
``Who's trying to be competitive? What we want is to concentrate on the market where there's less competition. And that's in the jumbo cars. Gasoline is taxed so heavily in Europe and Japan that they can't afford gas guzzlers. Gives us a tremendous market edge.''
``What does all this have to do with liquor and cigarettes''?
``Same rule applies. They're industries with a lot of jobs at risk.''
``But there are millions of people whose lives are ruined by alcoholism and whose health is jeopardized by smoking,'' I protested.
``When things get too bad, we'll create more social-service agencies and health-support industries,'' my friend said with a knowing grin. Frustrated, I asked how proponents were selling the issue to the public.
``First, we stress the right of individuals to spend their paychecks however they like. When young men and women are old enough to buy liquor, they're old enough to play the horses.
``Second, we say that the only people who stand to lose are those who gamble or approve of it. Who can possibly complain?''
My friend was so good at fending off objections, I hesitated to ask one last question: ``Don't you consider the social costs of encouraging gambling? Think of the broken homes and broken spirits from a get-rich-quick mentality, rather than weekly savings.''
``Oh, we know there'll be some side effects. But perhaps the public mood will change. Who knows, in the next decade we may be able to raise taxes again and fund an antigambling campaign.''