Risks to Self and to Others: Where is the Line?

The Marshalsea Debtors' Prison, image from google

Gambling is the only personal behavior with high potential for harm to self and others actively encouraged  by civil government.  Why the anomaly?   Revenue

Most Americans say government  should  not legislate  behavior  any more than speech.  Risky or self-destructive actions  internal to an individual  are personal  freedoms when  they don’t infringe  on the rights or the welfare  of others.  That line, however,  is hard to define.  

Some smokers chafe at laws to ban smoking in indoor public places.  There, sensitivities  more than cancer-causing potential of second-hand smoke are detriments to others.  No laws limit smoking in a home with young children,  though  beating and starving are prohibited.  Inference: society considers domestic second-hand smoke relatively low-hazard.

Take  money. Most people say that government should not decree what individuals may do with funds to which they have access  (not necessarily  really theirs).  By this philosophy,  there should be no laws that one cannot literally burn money,  or spend it on valueless objects, or run up credit card debt or take out loans with no intent to repay.   There aren’t.  Even when others (close or remote) lose by these behaviors,  society  allows them. Inference: society considers wasting someone else’s money tough luck for that someone.

Recently I  heard  this  “personal freedoms”  theme from a friend about  legalized  gambling.   My first response was to point out that active pathological and problem gamblers always abuse others around them, psychologically and fiscally.  No problem gambler is an island.   Those in recovery have always left  mayhem behind.   Even if launched with millions,  like ex-Mayor Maureen O’Connor,  they will all if active  go broke eventually and start taking from others who trust them.  My friend is too conservative  or  too libertarian   to be swayed by the harm-to-others  case as I put it. 

He could not, however, refute the observation that no laws are made on purpose to encourage behaviors like heavy smoking around children at home.  In contrast, changing laws to expand gambling so the state gets money from it encourages gambling. Addiction and Problem Gambling follow in too many people, despite “preventive” nostrums.  

My friend acknowledged  that in legalizing  gambling  government  is not making irksome laws to curb personal  behavior.  Quite the reverse.   By licensing gambling  to get revenue (via lottery or tax on casino),  government actually legislates  in favor of  personal behaviors some of which are bound to hurt trusted others.  Those who say “legalized” gambling  entitles  anyone  to use available  money any way  he or she wants  deplore  a ban such as New York  has on non-tribal casinos.  A ban, though, is to buffer gamblers and innocents around them, not to draw them in, not to exploit them.   In granting license for gambling to raise revenue,  government becomes an exploiter.    This is plain wrong. 


Note : The picture (from Google.com) shows the Marshalsea  in 19th C. London.  Charles Dickens knew this prison well. His father, though not a gambler,  was usually  in debt.  Debtors were locked up, unable to earn money, until someone else sprang them.

The opinions in this post are those of the writer, Stephen Q. Shafer MD MPH.  They do not necessarily reflect opinions of any or all other members of CAGNY.  Permission is granted for reproduction in whole or in part as long as the source is acknowledged with the permalink above.

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