Commentary

Gambling (Part 3)

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

This article is Radley Balko’s closing remarks in a larger debate on The Economist’s website.

It is one thing for gambling opponents to argue that negative external effects caused by addiction are so harmful that giving government the power to limit the individual freedom to wager is justified. I do not 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 is no different from people in debt from living a lifestyle beyond their means or 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 is 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.

Our moderator asked if there was a role for government to shape the national character. I would submit that there is not. Public service announcements and publicly funded health research are harmless enough, but in this case “shaping the national character” means prohibitions on consensual behaviour that are backed by the use of force. That is far too invasive. Though we can all probably agree on a broad outline of what makes for “good character” I would imagine we would start to disagree pretty quickly as the conversation became more specific. I know Mr Bernal and I would certainly disagree. And while it may sound promising to give government the power to enforce good character while your favoured political party is in charge, you are likely to rethink the proposition once an election hands the government over to someone whose concept of good character is quite a bit different from yours.

Some of the commenters in this debate have argued that gambling is not a “victimless” crime, citing the effect a gambling addict’s losses can have on his family, his employer and society at large. Mr Bernal goes the same route in opening his rebuttal with an anecdote about a woman who turned to robbing banks to support her gambling habit.

But of course millions of people patronise casinos each year without resorting to armed robbery to replenish their chips. Banning gambling because a seventh-grade teacher knocked over banks to feed her addiction makes about as much as sense as banning Jodie Foster from appearing in movies because John Hinckley Jr shot Ronald Reagan in an effort to impress her. We should not be passing laws in response to anecdotes.

But more broadly, any number of our day-to-day decisions can have indirect repercussions for lots of other people. If you are going to argue that we should prohibit gambling because problem gamblers might go into debt, causing hardship for 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 do not talk about banning them. (At least not yet!)

Generally, if all parties directly affected by an activity are of age, consent to the activity knowing its likely effects, and have not been misled by fraud or false claims, the activity ought to be legal. Banning vices like gambling does not make them go away. It only makes them more difficult to monitor and regulate, and enforcing such prohibitions requires the particularly intrusive government powers I mentioned in my opening statement.

I play online poker (even though my government has banned it — imagine that!). I am not particularly good. But I continue to play and wager, well within my means, because I enjoy the game. It’s entertainment. I am going to guess that Mr Bernal does not enjoy poker. Here is a good way for him to express his dislike of poker: don’t play it. He is even free to educate people about what he believes to be the dangers and addictive properties of online gambling. Good on him for it. But merely refraining from activities he finds distasteful is not enough for Mr Bernal. He wants to impose his preferences on me, as well. I would not dream of advocating that Mr Bernal be jailed for refusing to play poker. I just ask that he extend the same courtesy to my enjoyment of the game.

Mr Bernal’s peculiar attempt at lexicography aside, any notion of freedom in which the government has removed all of our “bad” choices is not freedom at all. Let us let people find happiness and entertainment where they please, so long as they are causing no direct, non-consensual harm to anyone else.

Radley Balko is a senior editor at Reason magazine.