What’s Wrong With Gambling?
The Economist is hosting an online debate about whether or not gambling should be legalized in the United States in places where it’s not already legal. As is usually the case, I find the prohibitionist’s — in this case, Leslie Bernal of the Stop Predatory Gambling Foundation — arguments fairly weak and pretty unconvincing. Bernal’s “opening remarks” are, frankly, a big sob story about the evil practices of the gambling industry. According to Bernal, the industry has “the most predatory business practices in the world” — it supposedly preys on “human weakness”, as evidenced by huge percentages of its profits coming from a minute percentage of its consumers, “relentlessly” pursue those gamblers who are more likely to keep gambling even if they lose, and encouraging gamblers to play until they are financially unable to keep doing so — and that’s apparently something that’s supposed to be… regulated.
I know these are mere “opening statements”, but Bernal doesn’t even really argue against gambling legalization. He simply argues against the predatory practices of the gambling industry by writing about the moral bankruptcy of the people who run casinos. Okay, I get it: the guys who run casinos are bad guys. There are probably also some bad guys own professional baseball teams and operate big department stores and sell cigarettes who “prey” on their consumers by offering cheap tickets to ball games but charging an arm and a leg for beers or offering two-for-one deals on neckties that would otherwise be very expensive or selling cigarettes that claim to be “lighter” than regular ones (heeeeeeeeey!). Are these businessmen “preying” on their customers?
A better question: even if they are, so what? Ultimately, the transfer of funds from one party to the next is still subject to the approval of both parties. The casino managers still aren’t stealing from the gamblers. The “proposer” in The Economist’s debate is Radley Balko, who details several good arguments in favor of legalizing gambling regarding policing the vice, such as its distorting effect on policing priorities, its inevitable intrusion into the lives of the citizenry, and its creation of a huge black market for gambling. There’s a better argument, though, with regard to the “predatory gambling” folly:
But the strongest argument for legalising gambling is also the simplest: individual liberty. A free society where the government bans activities it finds immoral or unseemly is not really a free society. Proponents of gambling prohibition say gambling is an addiction, and often point to stories of addicts who have wagered away the kids’ college fund, lost their house, or turned to crime to pay off their debts. But foolishness with our own money should not be illegal. We do not prohibit people from blowing their savings on eBay, taking out mortgages or loans they cannot afford (at least not yet), or frittering away their pay packets on mistresses. The government has no business policing its citizens’ personal lives for bad habits (particularly when it is happy to exploit those same habits for its own benefit). If liberty means anything at all, it means the freedom to make our own choices about our own lives, our money, our habits and how we spend our leisure time, even if they happen to be choices other people would not make for themselves.
Who are the feds to say that I can’t give my money to somebody that I know just wants to take it from me without giving anything in return? The business practices and/or bad behavior of the people who run a business is a terrible reason to prohibit that business’s existence. That’s always been true, and it will continue to be true, whether or not the feds decide that they can allow their wicked subjects to engage in self-destruction. Or, to look at it another way, commerce.