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All On Black

July 28, 2010
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Final remarks have been made in The Economist’s online debate on legalizing gambling, and if you’ve read what I’ve had to say about it previously, then you won’t be surprised by my being unimpressed with the “opposition’s closing remarks”.  If you’ve been following the debate, then you’ve already read these latest remarks from Leslie Bernal, as he repeats himself constantly in this round and doesn’t even address Balko’s arguments from the second round.  Balko does have an excellent response to Bernal’s “freedom from addiction argument”, which is unsurprisingly similar to my own view on the matter:

It’s one thing for gambling opponents to argue that negative external effects caused by addiction are harmful enough that giving government the power to limit the individual freedom to wager is justified. I don’t agree, but it is at least a reasonable argument. In his rebuttal, Les Bernal stakes a much more absurd, downright Orwellian position: Banning commercial gambling would expand our freedom.

“But the business model for casinos and lotteries only works if our government takes away the freedom of millions of Americans,” Bernal writes. “By definition, someone who is an addict or someone who is in deep financial debt is not free.”

Well, no. Someone who has become an addict or is in deep financial debt due to gambling is suffering the consequences his decisions. No one forced him to make those decisions. He’s no different than someone in debt from living a lifestyle beyond his means, or from speculating in high-risk real estate. You are free to walk out of a casino at any time. Scores of people do it every day, shirts still on their backs and savings intact.

Mr Bernal knows it would be unpopular to argue against personal freedom. So he’s trying to change its definition. In Mr Bernal’s world, freedom means having the government take bad decisions away from you. To borrow from (and slightly bastardise) a song by the great Kris Kristofferson, for Mr Bernal, freedom’s just another word for nothing left to choose.

Balko also addressed Bernal’s “social costs” argument, not quite as deeply as I did, but in a similar fashion:

But more broadly, any number of our day-to-day decisions can have indirect repercussions on lots of other people. If you’re going to argue that we should prohibit gambling because problem gamblers might go into debt, causing hardship on their families, or requiring them to seek publicly funded social services or welfare, you could make similar arguments for banning everything from unprotected sex, to laying on the beach, to rock climbing, to investment banking, to pie. There are people who enjoy all of these things to excess, or with an insufficient appreciation of their risk. Some indirectly harm others or require publicly funded medical care or assistance as a result. But we don’t talk about banning them. (At least not yet!)

The moderator is supposed to post a “decision” on Friday.  I guess that means there will be a winner and a loser here.  As of this writing, the proposer is only ahead by six points, which I consider a total shock having followed this entire debate.  Obviously the outcome will be affected by pre-existing convictions about the legalization of gambling, but if the outcome were decided by the quality of the arguments put forth, then it’s not even close.  Perhaps there are some good arguments out there in favor of keeping gambling illegal, but they certainly were not presented in this debate.

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