One great challenge facing a free society is properly encouraging risk-taking, without which little innovation, investment, or ingenuity would exist. If Americans did not take the risks that have long characterized our culture, our economic dynamism and military superiority would be impossible. But too many people taking excessive risks can worsen wealth inequality, social discord, and family breakdown.
We often assess risk in quantitative terms: small and calculated risks are good, the thinking goes, while large and impulsive ones are bad. But it might be more useful to measure risks qualitatively. Topping the risk hierarchy are those that are socially beneficial and cultivate virtues in the risk-taker. At the bottom are those that provide no use for anyone but the gambler (and perhaps the house, so to speak) and encourage the worst characteristics in him: sedated, addicted, seeking only hedonic pleasure. In the middle are the risks that redound to the public good but don’t necessarily encourage good habits (such as pursuing a career in politics), or vice versa.
This is not the prevailing view today, however. Consider the loop of television advertisements pushing two ubiquitous products: sports betting and Covid interventions. The blitz from sportsbooks shelling out billions in free first bets is matched only by the incessant pushiness of the state reminding you that it’s your civic responsibility to get one more jab, as Covid could ruin us at any moment. On the New York City subways, ads, art displays, and other messages remind you to mask up, and for good measure to avoid conversation while on the train; silently scroll on your phone instead.
These two campaigns present two opposite morals about risk. The sportsbooks assure us that “life is all about taking risks.” Isn’t it a risk every time you cross the street? We accept risk as the cost of potentially receiving an even greater reward; sports betting is no different from investing, having kids, or even commuting. May the gods of odds be ever in your favor.
On the other hand, the fight-Covid campaign’s durability into 2023 reminds us that we are being conditioned to find risk intolerable—especially risk regarding our physical health. Medical technology from aspirin to Zoloft addresses every ache and pain, and we can treat even the most aggressive maladies with cutting-edge interventions. Vaccines have made diseases like smallpox as distant as dinosaurs. We’re beyond ancient problems like viruses, aren’t we?
In retrospect, the emergence of zero-Covid fanaticism was inevitable. These zealots would, no matter how endemic the virus, happily shut down every facet of American life to “zero out” risk. They place lopsided value on booster shots for the general population. And public officials still downplay masking’s downsides, especially for children; they regard any risk of bodily harm as intolerable, but they dismiss social and psychological harms or rationalize them as a small price to pay.
Together, the sportsbooks and the Covid hawks represent qualitatively misplaced attitudes toward risk. They highlight a growing perversity in Americans’ relationship to uncertainty: “Take as much risk as you want on frivolous, addictive moonshots, and none when it comes to maintaining perfect health.” Preserving physical health while engaged in systematic non-judgmentalism is the reigning “minimum agreement” that binds us: “What you do with your time is your concern, but what you do with your body is all of ours.” This calculation does not best cultivate individual flourishing or a shared social well-being.
Gambling is considered a vice for good reason. As a skeptic of “fundamentals” investing and someone wary of the risks involved in, for instance, trading stocks, I acknowledge the parallels between respectable investing and picking horses—or football teams. But sports betting differs from investing in that there is no arguably valuable social function to predicting game outcomes, players’ scores, or minimum field goals kicked. Investing in stocks can at least allocate capital in an efficient manner toward people with plans to develop new things.
Buying a risk from a sports book contributes nothing productive. Our nation is no better off whether all or none of us predicted the score of a game. When you bet, you have patronized a business the way you would patronize a bakery, except instead of a loaf of bread you now have an outside chance of winning money. This subverts the moral core of free-market capitalism—when individuals direct their self-interest to producing what others value. The baker gets paid for his hard work because others want his product. The bookie does, too—but not the bettor, who seeks remuneration without allocating anything efficiently, producing anything, or providing anything of value to anyone else. He just guesses and waits. He will be rewarded for his morally arbitrary choice with a morally arbitrary outcome.
Of course, for anyone to gamble, some critical mass of people needs to be willing to keep the books afloat. Bettors provide value to other bettors, who can indulge their habit thanks to the marks. This circular defense of betting for its own sake is true to the extent that one accepts from the outset that betting is an acceptable form of leisure. But it also encourages gambling addiction, drives some individuals to steal to pay for their habits, and pulls them away from more beneficial habits. This hardly seems like a socially productive risk to encourage. Whether quantitatively big or small, it is a qualitatively bad risk.
Meanwhile, the competing extreme of zero Covid-ism is just as questionable. Our bodies are the vehicles of our lives, and to make something worthwhile of those lives, we need to put ourselves out there—among diseases, hazards, and other people. The impulse to protect health at all costs or to find extreme preventive measures against Covid are understandable. But these measures have deprived people of the very benefits of health: sharing birthday parties, providing comfort at funerals, experiencing the consolation or exhilaration of religious services.
Precisely because these small risks are so routine, they tend to be the first discarded whenever health concerns emerge. But they are routine because they form the backbone of social community.
This approach to risk leaves us with sedated, paranoid, and ultimately antisocial citizens. We see every wedding as a potential super-spreader event but every Super Bowl as a chance to achieve financial dreams from the safety of the couch. You could not devise a better recipe for self-centeredness, a republic’s most corrosive vice.
Lost in our flippancy toward both taking and rejecting risk is that human beings flourish when their risks are well-calculated to pay off in the form of human goods, whether family, faith, or service—along with the occasional hedonic pleasure, like a steak cooked rare or a bet on the Giants. In our social lives, we flourish when our energies are directed toward doing things for others, rather than simply using what we have to divert ourselves. The messages we present to the public, and especially the young and impressionable, about which risks are worth pursuing should reflect that.