In Gambling Battle, Both Sides Are Wrong

Neither supporters nor opponents want to consider personal liberty.


Some people say they gamble now and then for pleasure

Horse race
Kiankhoon /

And drink a little whiskey just to please a friend
They say it's really nothing, you've got to be broadminded
That word in my Bible is spelled S-I-N.
—The Louvin Brothers

The Louvin Brothers would not have approved of Gov. Ralph Northam, who said the other day "we should be open-minded in Virginia" with regard to historical horse racing at Colonial Downs.

Northam is right: We should. But he might not be right enough.

Colonial Downs has been shut for the past four years over a dispute, rooted in economic difficulty, between the owner and Virginia's horse industry. A prospective owner, Revolutionary Racing, might reopen the track—if it can incorporate video gambling on historical races. That system allows bettors to wager on races that already have been run; the gamblers know the odds for each horse but not its name or other identifying information.

The lack of knowledge about the horses puts historical race wagering in the category of slot-machine gambling: It's really just a matter of dumb luck. (In Kentucky, gamblers even bet on cartoon horses, removing all pretense that skill is involved.)

The random nature of the game raises the hackles of social conservatives, who barely tolerate horse racing in the first place. Victoria Cobb, president of the Family Foundation of Virginia, says her group is "incredibly disappointed that the General Assembly would pass a massive gambling expansion that is the equivalent of slots under the guise of saving the horse-racing industry."

If ever there were a dispute in which both sides are wrong, Virginia's dispute over gambling would probably be it.

Anti-gambling forces make a paternalistic, puritanical case: Gambling is a sin—or at the very least a personal shortcoming—that is bad for families and society, and particularly for those who have a predilection for addictive behavior. Therefore, government should protect people from their own destructive impulses.

Certainly there are many distressing stories about problem gamblers who have lost everything to their addiction, and they deserve our attention and sympathy.

But the same is true of problem drinkers. Indeed, even drinking by non-alcoholics often leads to a wide array of social costs. It doesn't follow, though, that because some people ruin their lives with drink everyone else should be denied the pleasure of it. In fact, even if drinking produces more unhappiness than happiness in the aggregate, government still has no place forbidding it.

Ditto for gambling.

It would be swell if those who want to expand gambling in Virginia made that case. Few do. Instead, gambling in Virginia—to the extent it is allowed—is always sold on the grounds of economic gain.

The state's Lottery was ushered in on the promise of huge new revenues for public education, and the state still pitches it that way: "Every time you scratch a ticket or pick your numbers for the big jackpot," the Virginia Lottery says, "you are creating winners in education all over the Commonwealth. Last year, the Lottery contributed more than a half-billion dollars to Virginia's public schools."

The legalization of horse racing and off-track betting parlors in Virginia were sold as vehicles with which to invigorate the state's horse industry. When Del. Andy Guest introduced a legalization bill in 1988, he said he did so to help "ailing industry, the horse industry … The industry is crying out for assistance."

Casino gambling has been pitched as a way to keep Virginia dollars from migrating to casinos like the MGM National Harbor in Maryland. Northam himself has made a similar point about horse racing: "There's a tremendous amount of money in Virginia that's going across state lines," he said last week. It would be better to keep that money in Virginia, he contends.

Call this that Argument From Social Utility: The state should allow Jones to gamble, so long as his gambling benefits Smith. It's a strictly utilitarian rationale, and there are two problems with it.

The first problem is utilitarian in its own way: Who is benefit or hurt by an activity, and by how much, is an extremely difficult thing to measure. Proponents can gin up studies from consultants that predict oodles of jobs and massive amounts of revenue from any given venture. Skeptics can gin up their own studies reaching the opposite conclusion.

If you like to gamble yourself, then here's a wager: Ten bucks says none of the people who cite economic-impact studies would change sides if the studies' results changed. Rather, they would disregard the results and seek supporting evidence elsewhere.

The other, more serious, problem with the Argument From Social Utility is the embedded assumption that people's choices are valid only insofar as they benefit others—usually in the economic sense. And that is a very dangerous way to think.

What is the economic utility of becoming, say, a painter or a poet, rather than a computer programmer? How many jobs are created by spending a sunny afternoon puttering around in the garden? How many tax dollars are produced by reading a mystery novel, or taking the dog for a walk? Answers: little, few, and none.

But that doesn't mean society should discourage people from doing such things. Other people have a right to pursue their own happiness; they don't exist merely to promote our own.

It very well might be the case that permitting people to gamble benefits the horse industry, creates jobs, and generates tax money for roads and schools. But Virginia should permit people to gamble even if gambling does none of those things—because the proper locus of the decision about whether to do so lies within the individual, not the state.