Free Minds & Free Markets

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 pleasureHorse raceKiankhoon /
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.

Photo Credit: Kiankhoon /

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  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

    Has anyone seen Crusty lately?

    Illegal 'gingerbread house' in Mount Baker-Snoqualmie Forest stocked with food, bedding — and child porn
  • Citizen X - #6||

    Crusty would be more likely to build a house out of pornography and stock it with gingerbread. STEVE SMITH, however, may be involved.

  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

    We are in Big Foot country up here...

  • Citizen X - #6||


  • Robert||


  • Fairbanks||

    This is the same mistake that libertarians make when they argue against a minimum wage for economic reasons. It should be argued against in the name of freedom.

  • Robert||

    Then how do you persuade people who don't care that much about others' freedom?

  • Fairbanks||

    I should have elaborated. Economic impact should be a fallback argument, if you choose to go there. You should start with the real reason. That lets the listener know where you actually stand, and doesn't invalidate your argument in other areas where the economics may not be positive. But I've seen the debate start with economics more often than not, including with Reason contributors.

  • albo||

    In 2003 Pennsylvania had just small games of chance at private clubs, the state lottery, and a dying horse racing industry. In 2018 the state is the second largest gambling state in the nation.

    What this says, I don't know. But it's mostly been done because the Rs who control the legislature won't raise taxes. The state grabs about 53 cents of every slot machine dollar.

    (Plus we went from being a sparkler state to a state where you can buy every firework allowed by the feds, again, for the tax revenue.)

  • MikeP2||

    not evil: Gambling

    evil: State sponsored gambling for the premise of revenue generation

  • albo||

    There's a reason why states reserve the lottery for themselves and not casinos--it's a 50 percent house edge and is basically stealing. It's immoral

  • some guy||

    It's called a tax on the mathematically challenged for a reason.

  • sarcasmic||

    Dave Ramsey calls it a "stupid tax."

  • some guy||

    He's not wrong. I was just trying to be nice.

    On the other hand, stupid people find all sorts of different ways to lose what little money they tend to have. Much of it, like the lottery, involves at least a little bit of fraud.

  • guy who doesn't care||

    "Dave Ramsey"

    don't care

  • Paloma||

    Cartman: Don't care, don't care, don't care, don't care.

  • sarcasmic||

    Gambling is entertainment. You pay for the thrill, and once in a while you win.

    Just like alcohol and drugs, some people will become addicted. But if that is grounds to ban gambling, then it's also grounds to ban alcohol and drugs.

  • some guy||

    Authoritarian nannies like the way you think.

  • ||

    The worst is those "scratch tickets".

  • Robert||

    What it says is, this is good. Whatever got you there, keep it up.

  • ||

    PA has made a killing with its gambling & horseracing made a big comeback.I don't think 53% is the takeout number.Check again.

  • sarcasmic||

    Moralists don't give a shit about liberty.

  • Citizen X - #6||

    "Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron's cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience" ― C.S. Lewis

  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

    C.S. Lewis was a Christian, so we don't listen to anything he has to say.

  • Citizen X - #6||

    Who's "we," kemosabe?

  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

  • sarcasmic||

    Drugs are bad. Tossing a flash-bang into a crib is for the good of the child because it gets its druggy parents onto the path to prison.

  • IceTrey||

    They were looking for his uncle.

  • some guy||

    The Japanese already did animated horse racing games, and they did it better than anyone in America ever could.

  • Wizard4169||

    That is some high-quality WTF right there. Thank you!

  • Citizen X - #6||

    "Stupid fucking white man" - the Pamunkey

  • John||

    I am going to go out on a limb here and say the cost of steel is a very small part of the cost of housing and number 1000 on the list of reasons why housing is too expensive.

  • sarcasmic||

    I'm going to go out on a limb here and say you posted on the wrong article.

  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

    Putting tariffs on steel isn't a gamble?

  • sarcasmic||

    The outcome is known so I'd say no.

  • some guy||

    It isn't a gamble when you know who the winners and losers will be.

  • MollyGodiva||

    While I agree with the arguments in this article, I oppose horse race gambling on animal cruelty grounds.The horse race industry treats their horses quite badly and the horses suffer quite a bit. I oppose greyhound racing on the same grounds.

  • ||

    Horse race people love their animals & it gives little guys good jobs.

  • Bubba Jones||

    If I know the odds of the horses, can a computer match that to historic races and help me pick the likely winner given the known outcomes of races matching those odds?

  • EscherEnigma||

    Theoretically yes, if the dataset the game is based on is accessible. Probably not with 100% accuracy, but enough to give you a positive expected value.

    That said, I imagine it would be like counting cards in Blackjack: you can do it, and if sufficiently discrete, you may even get away with it for a little bit. But if they catch you (and your win-rate will eventually be a giveaway) you'll get banned.

  • IceTrey||

    Every article on Reason could just be
    "Government does blah blah"
    "They shouldn't because...liberty."

  • Doradora||

    Politics is a complicated issue. Sometimes you just need something to have fun. With it is possible to have fun right at home 24/7. Slots are available for everybody now.

  • Amir Najam Sethit||


  • Gambler||

    There are a lot of pros and cons of gambling. But in my opinion, if you bet just for relaxing and on money which you can easily earn, it is okay


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