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.