Las Vegas neon lights at night that advertise a casino, a club, and other places

I laughed aloud when I read this passage from Matthew B. Crawford’s book The World Beyond Your Head:

“I recently visited Las Vegas, a place designed for the single purpose of separating you from your money.”

It’s funny because—beneath the surface—it’s true. Las Vegas is exciting because it’s full of things humans are hard-wired to pay attention to: bright, flashy lights and shows; sexy cowboys and cowgirls, along with the prospect of easy sex; food chock-full of sugar, fat, and salt; alcohol for every taste and price range; free stuff; and the prospect, no matter how long the odds, of acquiring gobs of money with little effort—just to name a few of the attractions on offer in this photo alone. However, what appears to be an abundance of exciting choices is actually an elaborate series of funnels toward addiction and loss of control over one’s money and other resources, painstakingly calculated and orchestrated by those in control.

I have never experienced what it is like to be addicted to gambling; but I have experienced addiction to food. When Crawford talks about the “death instinct” of addiction to gambling, I know what he means. He spoke to gamblers who explained that they often feel the need to spend all their money—to “zero out”—so they can go home and rest. If there’s money left in their pocket, they feel a tension in the uncertainty of whether they will spend it. It feels more comfortable to spend it all, so you can relax.

Give me a big bag of chips, and I feel the same way. Even if my stomach is full to bursting and my mouth is burning from the salt, how could I possibly leave any of it uneaten? Then I will just worry endlessly, wondering whether I will eat the remainder. It’s better to keep eating until it’s impossible to continue, because it’s all gone or I’m too sick, or to somehow find a way to throw it out irretrievably. Then I can relax.

But . . . what about willpower? What about freedom of choice? Shouldn’t gamblers be allowed the freedom to spend their money as they wish? Shouldn’t I be allowed to eat an entire big bag of chips in one sitting, without some sort of food cop ripping the bag from my hands? If we choose to do these things, isn’t that our prerogative, and our responsibility to face the consequences?

Well, yes, of course. However . . . we should also think about society as a whole and what people are being funneled toward by entities (like big corporations) with exponentially more wealth and power than most individuals. We should think about ways that society, as well as individuals, might put checks on that wealth and power. Do people who live hundreds of miles from the nearest casino experience lower odds of becoming addicted to gambling? (Yes.) Do people who live hundreds of miles from the nearest junk food outlet have lower odds of becoming addicted to sugar, fat, and salt? (Yes.) Here’s some more wisdom from Crawford:

“We abstain on principle from condemning activities that leave one compromised and degraded, because we fear that disapproval of the activity would be paternalistic toward those who engage in it. We also abstain from affirming some substantive picture of human flourishing, for fear of imposing our values on others. This gives us a pleasant feeling: we have succeeded in not being paternalistic or presumptuous. The priority we give to avoiding these vices in particular is rooted in our respect for persons, understood as autonomous. ‘People should be allowed to make their own decisions.'”

Crawford’s point (that is, one of his many points), and it’s a subtle one, is that people are not wholly autonomous. A person does not live in the bubble of his/her own head. By definition, a human being is a creature residing in a real world and interfacing with that real world, every second of every day.

Do we want a real world full of slot machines and people mindlessly pushing buttons, and full of junk food outlets and people mindlessly stuffing chips down their throats until they get sick? Of course, there are many things that individuals can do to avoid such traps as much as possible; for example, I avoid keeping chips around the house and strive to form and keep healthy eating habits. But what can society, as opposed to individuals, do to reduce the number of people who are funneled into, as Crawford says, “activities that leave one compromised and degraded”?

Dare we imagine another world, a better way?