Commentary

Taking Risks, Taking Responsibility

By Guy Calvert
This commentary appeared in the Las Vegas Review Journal on June 20, 1999.
In the film Gattaca, two brothers compete against each other in a futuristic brave new world. Each day as they grow up together, they swim stroke for stroke out into the sea, each striving to outlast the other. It is a game of chicken; if one gets scared or cannot continue, he turns back to shore, vanquished.

The naturally conceived Vincent, plagued by congenital disorders and doomed to mediocrity, seems no match for his genetically-screened younger brother, Anton, whose superb DNA promises him a bright athletic and intellectual future. Although Vincent becomes increasingly determined to win the contest, he is consistently beaten in the water as in all else. For many years, as expected, Anton is the undisputed champion.

Until one day, when, incredibly, Anton falls behind, struggles and very nearly drowns. Now Vincent, in saving his brother’s life, is transformed by a new confidence. His victory becomes a springboard from which his once hopeless dreams suddenly seem possible. Leaving home, he assumes a new genetic identity and dares to contest a prize reserved by society for a carefully bred elite.

As the story unfolds, the brothers are reunited, and we learn of Anton’s bitterness and self-disgust in defeat. Demanding satisfaction, he returns with Vincent to the beach, intending to set matters straight. But again, after an Olympian struggle, Vincent proves victorious. Anton, humiliated but still incredulous, pleads with his “inferior” sibling to explain how he could twice outdo him. Vincent’s answer is inspiringly simple: “I never saved anything for the swim back.”

A heroic battle against the odds, or a reckless gamble? In truth it is both at once, and therein lies the point.

Vincent is not the typical gambler, spinning wheels or shooting craps. And yet he gambles, risking death for a slim chance of a meaningful life, and at lousy odds. To many of us, there is something stirring in his determination to fight the “percentage,” a defiant expression of an indomitable human spirit. We understand that, while the risk of failure is great — and the consequences are terrible — sometimes, at least, fortune favors the bold. As Vincent insists, “It is possible.”

This is not to get caught up in romanticism but simply to acknowledge that Vincent’s choice is, for good or ill, his own. The wisdom of his choice, which affects him so personally, is entirely a subjective matter. But in a free society, it is and must be his choice to make.

It seems only fair that the same freedom should extend to other types of gamblers. But not everyone agrees. A blue ribbon commission on gambling with heavy Religious Right representation is about to recommend further restrictions on gambling.

The public conflict over gambling animates a larger debate that is of crucial importance to all Americans. On one side is the view that, in some situations, individuals cannot be trusted to face the personal consequences of their own decisions and so cannot be held accountable when things go wrong. Therefore, in the public interest, government officials must decide for them.

Weighing in on the other side of the argument are those who, like former Democratic presidential nominee George McGovern, are concerned about a general decline of tolerance. In the New York Times, McGovern eloquently took to task

“those who would deny others the choice to eat meat, wear fur, drink coffee or simply eat extra-large portions of food. While on any day each of us may identify with the restrictive nature of a given campaign, there is a much larger issue here. Where do we draw the line on dictating to each other? How many of these battles can we stand? Whose values should prevail?”

Americans must resist this presumption: that the voluntary choices of consenting adults are a matter for the state to tolerate sometimes but to outlaw when politically expedient. As the 19th-century philosopher John Stuart Mill declared, “Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign.” To depart from that standard is to put at risk our inheritance, the tradition of individual liberty upon which America was founded. And that would indeed be a reckless gamble.

Guy Calvert, a mathematician, is the author of Cato Policy Analysis No. 349, Gambling America: Balancing the Risks of Gambling and Its Regulation