America is a much freer place than it was a few decades ago, and one way you can tell is that changes once considered unthinkable now occur almost unnoticed. A case in point came when New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie signed a bill to legalize online gambling.
Atlantic City casinos, which now offer various games on site, will now be able to provide them to patrons at home or wherever else they have access to a computer. New Jerseyans will be able to play the slots without getting off the couch.
Doesn't sound like such a big deal, does it? But 40 years ago, there was only one way to take part in casino gambling: Get in your car or board an airplane and go to Las Vegas. For decades, Nevada was the only state where it was allowed.
Why? Because gambling was regarded as disreputable, the seamy habit of criminals, hustlers and lowlifes. Many people thought entering a casino was the first step on the road to self-destruction. So governments generally made gambling illegal.
To anyone who grew up since then, all this may sound bizarre. The casino-goer you know may be your strait-laced grandmother. Today, 38 states feature casino gambling establishments, including those on Indian reservations.
Nearly 60 million people -- 1 in 4 adults -- visited these places in 2011, according to the American Gaming Association (AGA). The industry now accounts for almost 1 percent of the national economy.
Legal gambling is all around us, and it's only going to become more ubiquitous. New Jersey is the third state to allow online betting, after Nevada and Delaware, and others are sure to follow.
The Obama administration spurred progress in 2011, when the Justice Department abandoned its position that federal law essentially prohibits online gambling. State lotteries, of which there are 43, may now sell tickets beyond their borders.
Legal restrictions can only do so much, regardless. In the digital age, policing online gambling is only slightly easier than curbing online pornography. In the debate over legalization, says Chapman University law professor Tom W. Bell, "always looming in the background is instant access to overseas casinos."
For the gambler determined to circumvent the law to wager from the comfort of home, he told me, "there's some hassle, but you can do it -- and not get caught." A survey commissioned by the AGA found that 4 percent of respondents already take part in online gambling.
That black-market competition is one reason the casino industry, which once opposed Internet betting, has gotten behind it. Better to provide it themselves, even if it means many players will stay away from casinos, than to let unregulated foreign operators corner the business.
The industry's support for change is a mixed blessing, as the New Jersey measure illustrates. Gamblers would have to establish accounts with casinos, and industry officials "expect the state to require gamblers to have to appear in person at a casino to open their accounts and verify their age, identity and other personal information," reports The Associated Press. A rule of this kind would serve to get patrons in the door, where they may be induced to buy food, drink and tickets to a show.
The new law also requires participants to be physically in New Jersey to place bets, at least for now. What lies ahead is far from being a wide-open, consumer-driven business. Still, it's a far better deal for customers than being denied a legal avenue to Internet betting.
Drastic change hasn't happened overnight, and it won't start now. But we have seen a steady, gradual process of opening up freedom in this particular realm -- a process that is not about to end.
That's because as more and more Americans have encountered legal gambling, they have discarded the exaggerated fears that once blocked it. The vast majority of patrons, it turns out, don't become compulsive gamblers, don't blow the rent on blackjack and don't desert their families.
Bringing a casino into a community is not likely to set off a wave of crime or social decay. Neither is allowing it in the home.
Attitudes that took years to change are not about to turn around. At a casino or a racetrack, you can't be certain of winning any wager. But in the policy arena, the continued expansion of legal gambling is as close as you can get to a sure thing.