September 21, 2023

What Were Once Vices Are Now Habits
With apologies to the Doobie Brothers. It’s a brave new world

By: Martin Hackworth

Hardly a day goes by anymore without some new revelation concerning an athlete caught up in a gambling scandal. It’s nothing short of amazing that few saw this coming when the rules on sports gaming were relaxed a few years ago and gaming interests almost immediately partnered with every professional sports league and franchise in the country. I mean, who’d a thunk it, right?

We currently live in a brave new world where what were once vices are now habits. Gambling, drug use, and general personal irresponsibility are currently at all-time highs, with little amelioration anywhere in sight. I don’t know where it’s all headed, but I’m pretty sure that the ride is going to be bumpy until we sort some things out.

The closest thing that I have to a general political philosophy is a strong inclination towards libertarianism. I’m generally big on putting the onus on individuals rather than the government to regulate their personal behavior. Just because I’m not down with something doesn’t necessarily mean that I think that ought to apply to you.

Even though I do not condone either gambling or drug abuse, I’m reluctant to support most bans on these activities. What you do with your life along these lines is mostly your business, at least in my view. Vices have to be bad enough that personal regulation is simply an unworkable solution to a societal problem before I’m for government intervention. The flip side of this is that it’s my belief that if you screw up because you can’t handle your vices, that’s on you. It’s not society’s obligation to bail you out.

But I’m also not at all reluctant to acknowledge that issues such as rampant drug abuse and a seemingly endless propensity for eschewing personal responsibility do pose significant threats to our well-being as a society. We have an interest in at least keeping an eye on what’s going on. And despite my libertarian leanings, I do have some discomfort with the current trends toward legalizing some vices, specifically recreational drug use and gambling. I think that we ought to think long and hard about what lies at the end of the road for both of these activities.

My reasons for eschewing drugs are simple. I have ample and unfortunate first-hand experience with the dangers of drug abuse. I grew up in a household where drugs and alcohol were routinely abused. I spent most of my early years wishing that drugs and alcohol had never been invented. The last thing that I wanted to grow up to be was anything like many of the adults around me as a child.

I am, I must admit, somewhat of a prude. I’ve never even smoked a cigarette, much less a joint. And my alcohol use as an adult was confined to fine bourbon and Pabst Blue Ribbon Beer, generally in great moderation, until I gave it all up a few years ago because my kids asked after watching a show on TV about the dangers of alcohol.

I have never found gambling even remotely attractive, except for the occasional office pool. I spent too much time working in casinos back in my sound, stage, and lighting days. The last thing I ever wanted to end up being was a retiree squandering their retirement savings away in a casino. For me, that would be a sad fate worse than death.

But again, that’s just me. If you want to indulge in drugs, alcohol, or gambling, and you can do so without taking the rest of us along for the ride, well, good for you. I’m reluctant to forbid anyone from doing anything just because I think that it’s a bad idea. But I do think that at least some of these activities have an impact on the rest of us, and these impacts may be quite deleterious at times. That means that there is a case to be made for at least paying attention to what’s going on.

Who can deny the impact of impaired driving (and sometimes impaired working) on all of us? Who can deny the impact of the current opiate crisis on our entire country? Who can deny the impact of open drug abuse on joblessness and homelessness and the gutting of entire major cities? It’s just a matter of time before the first major sports gambling scandal in one of the big five pro sports is uncovered, and it’s already happened in college. It’s not like there is no downside to these activities.

Right now, there is a big push to universally legalize marijuana and some psychedelic drugs for personal use. Again, the libertarian in me supports this. But the person who’s lived experience is replete with the downsides of drug abuse has some misgivings. I’ve seen how badly what starts out as a lark can quickly go south.

I think that all of these drugs, especially marijuana, need much more study from dispassionate researchers as opposed to advocates. I’m unconvinced of many claims concerning the benefits of recreational drugs for medicinal purposes. But I could be persuaded with more and better studies.

Not so with hard drugs. It is almost without doubt that opiates are a ticket to hell on earth. Heroin, for instance, is a one-way journey. You consume it once. After that, it consumes you. Why we’d want to do anything to make access to such addictive substances easier is simply beyond me.

A lot of this comes down to where to draw the line. Maybe marijuana is really everything that its advocates claim that it is. There’s one way to find out, and that is for the federal government to reschedule it so that it may be more easily studied. But I doubt that a study will ever exist that shows the benefits of deregulating opiates. Until, that is, someone invents another drug that nullifies their addictive effect.

The issue of personal responsibility runs throughout this thread. As I’ve said before in this column many times, I think that it should be mostly up to us to regulate our own behavior, not the government. To the degree that this currently does not appear to be working, it speaks more to our failures in raising several generations of children to be responsible adults than anything else.

I don’t know that it’s even possible to create enough laws to completely regulate personal responsibility. And even if it were, I’d still be against it. I think it’s better for us to evolve as a more disciplined and ethical society than it is to make up for our failures along these lines with more rules to regulate what we, ourselves, cannot.

As is often the case, I have many questions and few definitive answers with regard to any of this. I wish that I had more wisdom on where to draw the lines, but all that I have is my own uncertainty and confusion. All I know for sure is that we need to think long and hard about the consequences of an “anything goes” world. I’m just not so sure that “anything goes” generally goes anywhere good.

Associated Press and Idaho Press Club-winning columnist Martin Hackworth of Pocatello is a physicist, writer, and retired Idaho State University faculty member who now spends his time with family, riding bicycles and motorcycles, and arranging and playing music. Follow him on Twitter @MartinHackworth.

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