Wagers of Sin

Dealing with the anti-gambling backlash


It is common these days to chatter about smaller government and individual responsibility, but we are actually living in increasingly prohibitionary times. Choices properly decided by private individuals are instead being limited or abolished through restrictive public policy. Hence, the V-Chip, government-mandated ratings of television programs, and attempts to regulate information flow on the Internet; federal- and state-level attempts to regulate cigarettes as "nicotine-delivery devices"; and a reinvigorated War on Drugs, which finally has a bona fide general in command.

The latest target of prohibitionists is legalized gambling, which has enjoyed a decade or so of rapid growth. Ten years ago, only Nevada and New Jersey boasted casinos. Nowadays, there are two dozen states with casinos, including betting houses run by 126 different American Indian tribes. Thirty-seven states run lotteries and some have either allowed or are considering slot machines at existing gambling sites such as horse- and dog-racing tracks. Last year, Americans spent more than $40 billion on legalized gambling, up from about $10 billion in 1982.

The anti-gambling backlash is here, there, and everywhere. Over the past two years, the National Coalition Against Legalized Gambling has stymied casino and slot-machine plans in 23 states. The backlash is worth pausing over not only because it threatens yet another personal liberty but because it also allows insight into the prohibitionist mindset.

Prohibitionists are in the difficult position of telling people that certain choices are so misguided that they simply can no longer be allowed. But since the targeted behavior is usually highly popular and widespread, prohibitionists must redefine it as an unconditional evil that cannot be resisted, even by men and women of character. Ironically, in the name of morality, prohibitionists must strip individuals of the right to make moral decisions.

This is certainly the case with gambling, where opponents traffic in metaphors of invasion and addiction that define bettors as passive victims. The Rev. Tom Grey, the Methodist minister who heads the NCALG, describes himself as "a man committed to all-out war" against the "predator" gambling industry. The middle Americans who fill the casinos, you see, don't really want to spin the wheel, throw the dice, or take the chance. Pat Buchanan rails that "gambling should return to the swamp whence it came," ignoring the fact that 125 million Americans willingly choose to go to casinos every year.

The Christian Coalition's Ralph Reed pronounces gambling a "cancer on the body politic, destroying families, stealing food from the mouths of children, turning wives into widows." Betting as rapacious disease? That would have been news to the folks I used to ride with on infrequent trips to Atlantic City during the '80s. We gambled because it's fun to do, every once in a while. Forty or 50 people–college kids, vacationers, retirees–would pile in a bus in midtown Manhattan and ride a couple of hours to play slots and cheap blackjack. When it came time to leave, no one, to my knowledge, ever had to be pried away from the roulette table or the slot machines.

Indeed, the social scientific literature, including studies done for the Swedish, British, and U.S. governments, tends to characterize gamblers as virtually indistinguishable from non-gamblers–except that gamblers are more sociable, more involved in community activities, and bigger opera, theater, and museum buffs. While it is true relatively poorer people spend more proportionally on wagers and bets, the overwhelming majority of gamblers responsibly budget their expenditures and use their winnings for "home-centered items."

The profile of gamblers as normal people, however, is unlikely to work its way into many stories about anti-gambling activism. Rather, the media showcase the dark side of gambling. A recent Time story, for instance, recounts the fate of a 40-year-old school teacher and mother of two who shot herself in the head after racking up huge gambling debts. "The day she died," writes Time, "sheriff's deputies were on their way to her home with an eviction order….[H]er husband…knew nothing of their financial problems, although she had pawned their wedding rings and skipped making the house payments for 17 months."

Such a story is, of course, undeniably tragic–and undeniably rare. Time itself mentions in passing that Harvard University's Center for Addiction Studies estimates that "between 3.5 percent and 5 percent of all adults exposed to gaming can be expected to develop into pathological gamblers." Other estimates are lower still.

Horror stories, however bleak, should not guide public policy. "Gambling," note Reuven and Gabrielle A. Brenner in their 1990 history Gambling and Speculation, "is a mass phenomenon, and its study must not be confused with that of a pathological minority of compulsive gamblers, just as the examination of a few workaholics, alcoholics, obese people, womanizers, addicted TV watchers, and addicted exercisers is irrelevant for a social judgment on the behavior of the billions who work, drink, eat, love and/or have sex, watch TV or enjoy exercising with customary frequency."

For prohibitionists, of course, the self-regulation evinced by better than 95 percent of gamblers is a logical impossibility or, perhaps, a logical improbability. The world confounds prohibitionists, as do people who believe they should decide how to live their own lives.