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The Price of Virtue is too High

Comment by Tom Oleson, Winnipeg Free Press
March 31, 1995

The premier of the Canadian Province of Manitoba, Gary Filmon, thinks it's OK to do it just about any old time. So does the leader of the Opposition, but he wants more money for doing it. The leader of Manitoba's third party, on the other hand, is a little embarrassed by all the cash that it brings in so he thinks that we shouldn't do it on Sundays. All of them think it's a kind of naughty thing, but it's really sort of all right because it's being done in a good cause. And the price of virtue is too high.

What are we to make of all this? How do we get a grip on it, how do we find a handle on this fundamentally moral problem?

Some help comes from Nevada.

That's an odd place for help to come from, since we are told often enough that Nevada is exactly the kind of place we don't want to be like. It is not usually thought of as being the kind of spiritual beacon that we like to think we are, but nevertheless, from that state comes some light that may help us put the question in a better perspective.

In that state, where the sex trade is legal and gambling underpins life itself, a controversy has arisen that shows that even the moral conventions of the good people of Nevada can be tested. A prostitute is in the running for the Mrs. Nevada contest. She has already won a local contest and is Mrs. Someplace-or-other, so she is now eligible to win the big prize as well and, according to unofficial odds-makers, has a pretty good chance of doing so. The idea has some people upset. They don't like the idea of a prostitute representing their state, even if she is gainfully employed in a legal profession. Still, it seems that there is no reasonable way of stopping her, and, personally, I wish her lots of luck.

The lady herself argues that her appearance in the contest will help the image of her co-workers. Prostitutes, she says, are just honest, decent, working people like anybody else. And she's probably right. Probably, too, most people would be more offended by what her husband does.

He encouraged her to go into the business because he couldn't work at his own trade, so she goes out to work each day, or night, or whatever, while he lives off the avails of her labor.

It is hard to see why this woman shouldn't be Mrs. Nevada. There wouldn't be any problem at all if she were employed in a casino rather than a brothel, even though gambling is supposed to be just as much a vice as prostitution. We can probably learn something about ourselves from this, even though we don't have that particular problem in Manitoba. Public prostitution is illegal here, so the women in the profession go to work on the mean and dangerous streets while their men are free to spend the profits supporting the arts or eliminating the deficit at the gaming tables and slot machines provided by our government. We are all free, in fact, to spend the earnings our spouses bring home from more conventional occupations in the same way and a lot of us, it seems, occasionally do.

So how does Nevada's problem of the moment shed light on our perennial one? Well, moral outrage can be a peculiar thing. Nevadans are outraged by a spotlight shining on prostitution more than they are by the existence of the trade itself. We don't usually have to be outraged by that because we hardly ever think about it. We do, however, spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about gambling, and if the polls and analysts are right, being outraged by it in an odd sort of way.

If you, like me, were to the brown bag born, doomed to measure out your existence in the tuna salad sandwiches you carry to work for lunch each day, you probably are not much directly affected by gambling except to curse the Earl of Sandwich daily for inventing at the gaming table the alleged meal that bears his name and pondering perhaps, how your tuna fish on rye is tiresome proof this is a fallen world and the sins of the father are visited on the sons for eternity.

Aside from that fairly common circumstance, most of us really don't experience any more adverse effect from government gambling dens than we do from beer parlors or from the people smoking out in the cold in front of our smoke-free buildings or the junkie shooting up in a hallway somewhere.

Except, of course, in one fairly important way - we benefit from the immense profits that gambling brings in. We are all, like the husband of the Nevada prostitute, living off the avails. Not to put too fine a point on it, we are all, humble voter and exalted politician alike, pimps in a way. It's not the kind of thought that we very proper people like to dwell on, but we don't want to give it up, either - hence our peculiar moral outrage. The alternative would be to pay for government services ourselves with more taxes, but since most voters don't really want more taxes, most politicians don't want to suggest that alternative. Vice can be nice when the price of virtue is too high. I could go on about this, but I'll leave you to think about it instead - a session of moral outrage always leaves me feeling sluggish.