Don’t Give Up the Right to Gamble

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. QueenElizabeth I chartered the first English lottery in 1569, and in bothcolonial America and the independent United States, lotteries were used tofill the public coffers. Until the 1840s, steamboats hosted organizedgambling; when gambling was outlawed, Americans simply started placing betsunder the table.

History's lesson is clear. For all the bluster, America's love of gamblingis inextricably tied to the propensity of human beings to take risks, anenduring and necessary trait of human nature.

Granted, people enjoy gambling for many reasons, some of which may seemunfathomable to others. But at heart, gambling is a combination of riskandritual. Both are components of human society.

I do not suggest that gambling behavior, simply because it is natural, isnecessarily a moral good. But if gambling is a vice, that is a matter forphilosophers, theologians, and the individual to grapple with. Anycoerciveeffort by the government to eliminate or reduce gambling must competeagainst that most formidable opponent, human nature.

The commission's proceedings obscure the point that, for most people, theoccasional wager is simply a matter of fun, a voluntary and harmlesspursuitthat many find rewarding. In moderation, it is neither less wholesome norless rational than other sources of entertainment, such as television, theopera, or competitive sports.

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

This is not to belittle the struggle of compulsive gamblers. Trulypathological gambling can result in genuine human misery. But the same orworse is true of alcohol abuse, and yet we recognize that alcoholism isbestaddressed on a voluntary basis rather than through prohibition. Likewise,the best recourse for compulsive gamblers seems to be counseling andabstinence, not government intervention to limit wagering. It is absurd tothink that compulsive gamblers did not frequent the many illegal casinosand"bust-out joints" that preceded the legalization of gambling, and wouldspring up again with a new prohibition on gambling.

With all the talk about alleged economic and social costs of gambling, welose sight of the entertainment value of gambling. Some people gamblesimply for the exhilaration of a night out under blazing neon lights. Partof the thrill derives from the very real prospect of winning money, and oftaking a risk. Gambling also allows us to control the amount of risk weexpose ourselves to; we rarely get to "play" with risk like that in oureveryday pursuits.

The willingness to take risks has been a necessary part of humanadvancement. As Nobel laureate F. A. Hayek wrote,Humiliating to human pride as the insight may be, we must recognize that weowe the advance and even the preservation of civilization to a maximumopportunity for accidents to happen. These accidents occur in thecombination of knowledge and attitudes, skills and habits acquired byindividual men, and also in the confrontation of qualified men with theparticular circumstances with which they are equipped to deal. Ournecessary ignorance of so much means that we have to deal largely withprobabilities 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 cavesonthe other side of the Atlantic? The entrepreneurs, pioneers andtrailblazers were often those who combined superior insight with apreparedness 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 betrusted to face the personal consequences of their own decisions and socannot be held accountable when things go wrong. Therefore, in the publicinterest, government officials must decide for them.

To accept that view is to put at risk our inheritance, the tradition ofindividual liberty upon which America was founded. And that would indeedbea reckless gamble.