Taking Risks, Taking Responsibility

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 doomedto mediocrity, seems no match for his genetically-screened younger brother,Anton, whose superb DNA promises him a bright athletic and intellectualfuture. Although Vincent becomes increasingly determined to win thecontest, he is consistently beaten in the water as in all else. For manyyears, as expected, Anton is the undisputed champion.

Until one day, when, incredibly, Anton falls behind, struggles and verynearly drowns. Now Vincent, in saving his brother's life, is transformedbya new confidence. His victory becomes a springboard from which his oncehopeless dreams suddenly seem possible. Leaving home, he assumes a newgenetic identity and dares to contest a prize reserved by society for acarefully bred elite.

As the story unfolds, the brothers are reunited, and we learn of Anton'sbitterness and self-disgust in defeat. Demanding satisfaction, he returnswith Vincent to the beach, intending to set matters straight. But again,after an Olympian struggle, Vincent proves victorious. Anton, humiliatedbut still incredulous, pleads with his "inferior" sibling to explain how hecould twice outdo him. Vincent's answer is inspiringly simple: "I neversaved anything for the swim back."

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

Vincent is not the typical gambler, spinning wheels or shooting craps. Andyet he gambles, risking death for a slim chance of a meaningful life, andatlousy odds. To many of us, there is something stirring in hisdeterminationto fight the "percentage," a defiant expression of an indomitable humanspirit. We understand that, while the risk of failure is great -- and theconsequences 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 thatVincent'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 afree society, it is and must be his choice to make.

It seems only fair that the same freedom should extend to other types ofgamblers. But not everyone agrees. A blue ribbon commission on gamblingwith heavy Religious Right representation is about to recommend furtherrestrictions on gambling.

The public conflict over gambling animates a larger debate that is ofcrucial importance to all Americans. On one side is the view that, in somesituations, individuals cannot be trusted to face the personal consequencesof their own decisions and so cannot be held accountable when things gowrong. Therefore, in the public interest, government officials must decidefor them.

Weighing in on the other side of the argument are those who, like formerDemocratic presidential nominee George McGovern, are concerned about ageneral decline of tolerance. In the New York Times, McGovern eloquentlytook to task

"those who would deny others the choice to eat meat, wear fur, drink coffeeor simply eat extra-large portions of food. While on any day each of usmayidentify with the restrictive nature of a given campaign, there is a muchlarger 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 ofconsenting adults are a matter for the state to tolerate sometimes but tooutlaw when politically expedient. As the 19th-century philosopher JohnStuart Mill declared, "Over himself, over his own body and mind, theindividual is sovereign." To depart from that standard is to put at riskour inheritance, the tradition of individual liberty upon which America wasfounded. And that would indeed be a reckless gamble.