Commentary

Don’t Give Up the Right to Gamble

By Guy Calvert
This commentary appeared in the Washington Times June 21, 1999.
Gambling has joined smoking and drinking as the latest vice under the federal microscope. Congress established the National Gambling Impact Study Commission three years ago to “conduct a comprehensive study of the social and economic impacts of gambling in the United States.” But the commission instead confined itself to a narrow review of “problem and pathological gambling.” That’s why its report, to be issued June 18, will call for further restrictions on gambling.

Gambling is as American as apple pie, whether we like it or not. Queen Elizabeth I chartered the first English lottery in 1569, and in both colonial America and the independent United States, lotteries were used to fill the public coffers. Until the 1840s, steamboats hosted organized gambling; when gambling was outlawed, Americans simply started placing bets under the table.

History’s lesson is clear. For all the bluster, America’s love of gambling is inextricably tied to the propensity of human beings to take risks, an enduring and necessary trait of human nature.

Granted, people enjoy gambling for many reasons, some of which may seem unfathomable to others. But at heart, gambling is a combination of risk and ritual. Both are components of human society.

I do not suggest that gambling behavior, simply because it is natural, is necessarily a moral good. But if gambling is a vice, that is a matter for philosophers, theologians, and the individual to grapple with. Any coercive effort by the government to eliminate or reduce gambling must compete against that most formidable opponent, human nature.

The commission’s proceedings obscure the point that, for most people, the occasional wager is simply a matter of fun, a voluntary and harmless pursuit that many find rewarding. In moderation, it is neither less wholesome nor less rational than other sources of entertainment, such as television, the opera, or competitive sports.

The campaign against gambling relies on images of poor, desperate addicts. But in fact most casino gamblers are not crazed, welfare-dependent desperados; they tend to be better off than the average American. A recent industry study found that while the “median age of casino players is similar to that of the U.S. population” (about 48 years), they are more likely to have attended college. Moreover, the average household income of casino players is 28 percent higher than the U.S. average. (Interestingly, state-run lotteries, not private casinos, attract customers who are poorer than average.)

This is not to belittle the struggle of compulsive gamblers. Truly pathological gambling can result in genuine human misery. But the same or worse is true of alcohol abuse, and yet we recognize that alcoholism is best addressed on a voluntary basis rather than through prohibition. Likewise, the best recourse for compulsive gamblers seems to be counseling and abstinence, not government intervention to limit wagering. It is absurd to think that compulsive gamblers did not frequent the many illegal casinos and “bust-out joints” that preceded the legalization of gambling, and would spring up again with a new prohibition on gambling.

With all the talk about alleged economic and social costs of gambling, we lose sight of the entertainment value of gambling. Some people gamble simply for the exhilaration of a night out under blazing neon lights. Part of the thrill derives from the very real prospect of winning money, and of taking a risk. Gambling also allows us to control the amount of risk we expose ourselves to; we rarely get to “play” with risk like that in our everyday pursuits.

The willingness to take risks has been a necessary part of human advancement. As Nobel laureate F. A. Hayek wrote, Humiliating to human pride as the insight may be, we must recognize that we owe the advance and even the preservation of civilization to a maximum opportunity for accidents to happen. These accidents occur in the combination of knowledge and attitudes, skills and habits acquired by individual men, and also in the confrontation of qualified men with the particular circumstances with which they are equipped to deal. Our necessary ignorance of so much means that we have to deal largely with probabilities and chances.

If some individuals had not been prepared to take mad uncalculated risks, who knows where evolution would have led? Would we be crouching in caves on the other side of the Atlantic? The entrepreneurs, pioneers and trailblazers were often those who combined superior insight with a preparedness to gamble.

The public conflict over gambling animates a larger, more crucial debate. On one side is the view that, in some situations, individuals cannot be trusted to face the personal consequences of their own decisions and so cannot be held accountable when things go wrong. Therefore, in the public interest, government officials must decide for them.

To accept that view is to put at risk our inheritance, the tradition of individual liberty upon which America was founded. And that would indeed be a reckless gamble.

Guy Calvert, a mathematician, is the author of Cato Policy Analysis No. 349, Gambling America: Balancing the Risks of Gambling and Its Regulation