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The Liberal Case for Casinos

October 25, 2014

MAYBE IT’S because I retired, but I apparently missed the meeting — the one in which it was decided that liberals should oppose casinos.

While I do not enjoy gambling personally — putting my name on the ballot 20 times in 40 years used up my lifetime appetite for risk — I have never understood why it should be illegal for adults to make bets with their own money, any more than we should outlaw other personal decisions that some people believe other people shouldn’t make. The guiding principle, which I have always considered to be part of liberalism, is that government should protect individuals from being harmed by others, but not impose rules which keep them from making choices about things that affect themselves, even if a good case can be made that they are unwise.

MAYBE IT’S because I retired, but I apparently missed the meeting — the one in which it was decided that liberals should oppose casinos.

While I do not enjoy gambling personally — putting my name on the ballot 20 times in 40 years used up my lifetime appetite for risk — I have never understood why it should be illegal for adults to make bets with their own money, any more than we should outlaw other personal decisions that some people believe other people shouldn’t make. The guiding principle, which I have always considered to be part of liberalism, is that government should protect individuals from being harmed by others, but not impose rules which keep them from making choices about things that affect themselves, even if a good case can be made that they are unwise.

In defense of this principle I have joined other liberals in opposing restrictions on what people can read, watch, or say, no matter how unpleasant or offensive that content is to others. I cheered when the liberal bloc on the Supreme Court provided most of the votes — over conservative objections — for abolishing laws against sodomy, and I am proud that we liberals have been leading the fight for the legalization of marijuana. Liberals’ commitment to supporting individual autonomy over societal norms was tested by the question of whether females below legal age could get abortions without parental permission, and self-determination won out. I have never argued that all of the choices we liberals have defended were the wisest, kindest, or most beneficial — only that in a free society, individuals should have the right to make them for themselves.

The argument that an adult’s decision to gamble with her own money is an exception to this general principle of liberalism must have been made at the meeting I missed. I have tried in vain ever since to understand its justification. The two rationales I have encountered seem to me not only wrong, but particularly incompatible with the approach my fellow liberals take to other issues

The first is that while it is not inherently immoral for people to gamble — that is the anti-casino argument of some religious conservatives, based on scriptural passages which apparently implicitly exempt bingo and church lotteries — a minority will do it to excess. That is, the entire activity should be illegal because a few of those who engage in it will do it irresponsibly. This is the classic example of an argument that proves too much. The position that society should ban everybody from doing things that a minority will overdo is a platform for severely impinging on personal freedom, beginning of course with prohibition of alcohol. There are obsessive viewers of pornography; people addicted to playing video games; and people who create fire hazards because they can’t bear to throw out old newspapers and magazines. Start banning things some people will do foolishly and there is no logical place to stop.

The second argument is the one that seems to woo many liberals away from support for individual freedom: that gambling should be outlawed because it is bad for low-income people. The poor, we are told, must be protected from spending what little money they have unwisely. In effect, liberal opponents of casinos argue that people of limited means cannot be trusted to decide how to enjoy themselves. The fact that many of them obviously get pleasure from betting — for whatever reasons — requires society to step in and force them to choose some other form of recreation.

I am struck by the similarity between this liberal insistence on keeping the poor from wasting their money on slot machines and lottery tickets and the conservative effort — which liberals generally oppose — on putting much tighter controls on how they spend the various forms of assistance some receive.

The great inconsistency between the usual support liberals give to respecting the right of lower-income people to be treated with dignity and respect and the declaration that preventing them from foolishly gambling away their money leads me to a conclusion which, when I state it, may lead to my not being invited to future meetings setting our agenda.

The issue is cultural, not economic. Gambling is to liberals what pornography is to many conservatives: They think it is tacky, and that society would be better without it.


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Christopher Browne

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