GAMBLING is spreading in the United States. State lotteries have swept the country, and 48 states have some form of legal gaming. In small towns like Deadwood, S.D., and three mountain communities outside of Denver the gold pours in as if by magic. Many in the press and in the communities marvel at the power of the slot machine to boost a small-town economy.But what is the real cost to the society? In the past, says Prof. Bill Eadington of the University of Nevada, Reno, the arguments against gambling were "morality, organized crime and corruption, and pathological gambling." Of those three, only the moral argument has dropped from public discourse. Given today's moral relativism, it is no surprise that "moral" arguments against gambling have been abandoned. When the arguments for gambling are all economic, the case against gambling seems more ephemeral - morality appears to be a luxury few wish to afford. But morality is fundamentally practical. Ethics arise from a sense of the long-term good, not short-term expediency. Ethics and economics are not mutually exclusive. Are we asking the right questions as a society about the long-term effects of gambling? Why, for example, was gambling outlawed for so long? Are we again failing to learn the lessons of history? Who really benefits from gambling, and who is most hurt? Where is the money coming from? Are families undermined? Are children or the elderly being abused or neglected? What does the dependence on chance do to the individual? Gambling is a self-absorbed activity, essentially antisocial in nature, that promotes materialism, greed, and self-interest, and turns the player away from his fellow beings. Finally, gambling - particularly of the state lottery variety - is a regressive tax on the poor, those who can least afford it yet who are most susceptible to the promise of instant riches despite astronomical odds against winning. State lotteries have, in fact, sanitized the image of gambling in the public eye. Many states engage in advertising that is downright dishonest - a "buy the dream" campaign like that in Colorado. The excuse for this is that only a hard sell peddles lottery tickets. But when gambling enters a community as it has in Central City, Colo., the price is high - and hidden. Reports show that Coloradans are doing most of the gambling, not tourists. For each new job in Central City, another will close down in Denver. Money is not being spread around. It is lining the pockets of a few. Legalized gambling is a trap - society seducing itself into thinking that the proceeds will build a better tomorrow with more spacious parks (or, ironically, in Colorado more prisons). Yes, a few dollars are diverted into public works - at the expense of the regional economy. And at what price to our national character?