This article is Radley Balko's opening remarks in a larger debate on The Economist's website.
In January 2006, the Fairfax County, Virginia, Police Department sent a SWAT (Special Weapons and Tactics) team to the home of Sal Culosi, a 37-year-old optometrist. Several months earlier, a detective had overheard Mr Culosi and some friends making a wager on a college football game they were watching at a sports bar. The detective joined in the wagering, befriended Mr Culosi, then continued to bet on games with him, suggesting higher and higher wagers until they hit the minimum amount needed to charge Mr Culosi with running a gambling operation. During the raid, one SWAT officer fired his gun, he says by accident. The bullet struck Mr Culosi directly in the heart, killing him.
Months later, as the NCAA (National Collegiate Athletic Association) basketball tournament was about to start, the same police department that had just killed a man for betting on sports put out a press release warning residents not to wager on tournament office pools, ominously titled "Illegal Gambling Not Worth the Risk". That same year, 2006, the Virginia state government spent $20m encouraging its citizens to play the state lottery.
Gambling is no different from any other consensual crime. Prohibiting it does not make it go away. It merely pushes it underground, where it is impossible to monitor for cheating and fraud, where the stakes are likely to be higher, and where problem gamblers stand to lose quite a bit more than merely their pay packet. When you make a popular activity illegal, you also create new sources of funding for career criminals. It is fairly well known that America's experiment with alcohol prohibition gave rise to the mob. But Al Capone and his rivals also brought in big money from the numbers racket.
Consensual crimes like gambling also produce no aggrieved victim to report or provide evidence of the crime. All parties to a sports wager or illegal card game participate willingly. So in order to enforce these laws, police must go out and search for criminal activity. This creates a number of problems.
First, it distorts policing priorities. If there are no murder victims or reported car thefts, homicide and property crimes cops are not expected to go out and arrest people anyway. But there will always be gambling. It is just a matter of finding it. A vice cop is always expected to bring in gamblers and bookies. This creates the sort of incentive problems that cause police to send SWAT teams to the homes of people who harmlessly wager on college sports with friends, or to veterans' halls that run charity poker games. Whether explicit or implied, vice police face quotas. It is easier to fill them with harmless gamblers than to conduct months-long investigations into major criminal enterprises. And every cop spent investigating a bookie or neighbourhood poker game is one less cop investigating crimes that produce actual victims.
Second, the government cannot enforce a ban on gambling without intruding on the privacy and civil liberties of its citizens. When the American government attempted to ban online gambling in 2006, the preamble to the bill noted that "traditional law enforcement mechanisms are often inadequate" to enforce these sorts of bans. So the government deputised banks to police their customers' accounts, and to block and report payments to gaming sites. There was even talk of forcing internet service providers to monitor their customers' web habits. The bill ended up criminalising foreign companies that facilitate online payments because in addition to thousands of other clients, those companies also worked with gaming sites, even though doing so was perfectly legal in the countries where those companies were located. (The American government has actually arrested executives from those companies.) To enforce America's drug prohibition, another ban on consensual crimes, the government has granted itself so many powers to violate its citizens' civil liberties that some legal scholars now refer to a "drug war exception" to the Bill of Rights.
Lastly, enforcement of consensual crimes often requires police to break the very laws they are enforcing (as the detective did in the Culosi case) — or pay an informant to do it for them. This undermines respect for the rule of law, tempts law enforcement into corruption and often produces bad information.
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.