Thursday, November 12, 2015

Hypocritical Government

I know I hold a minority view in believing the government exists solely to protect individual rights and should never undertake actions to stop "bad" behavior that does not violate the rights of another (eg. drug use, prostitution, gambling, etc), but I have to say, in many cases, the arguments offered for laws intended to protect citizens from themselves, to try to supposedly save them from their own bad decisions, make absolutely no sense. So much so that even those who do not agree with my basic thesis must see the problem. At least so I imagine, though often discussions have shown me that others sometimes don't quite see what I do.

A great example is to be found in laws about gambling.

For our purposes, let us use the laws as they now existed, and existed over the past three decades or so, in the state of Maryland, as I know them better than any other, and, though perhaps slightly more hypocritical due to the horse racing industry, are neither especially hostile towards gambling, nor especially lenient.

When I was younger, from the 1970s through most of the 1980s, Maryland had laws which it shared with most of the nation. Gambling was illegal, be it a casino, a friendly poker game, a slot machine or an office pool. Obviously, the law was rarely enforced in the smaller cases, with few police ever busting midnight card games or Super Bowl pools, but, at least nominally, all such actions were illegal. And the argument was the same offered in most other states as well. Gambling tempted "the weakest among us", taking their money away, often from those who could least afford it, and thus needed to be banned.

Before I go on, I would like to note how well this argument matches what I have previously dubbed the stereotypical liberal argument*. The problem is the fault of mysterious "other people", the listener is excluded from blame, he and the speaker are part of the wise elite who must guide the less wise to the proper course of action. And, so as not to appear to be "blaming the victim", these people are identified as "the weakest among us". (Which, quite patronizingly, is equated with poverty by discussing how they can ill afford it. A strange position for a supposed liberal to take, though, in truth, condescension is not that unusual on the left**.) The argument implies, though never states, wise souls such as ourselves could choose to gamble, and would do so without harm, but we must forgo this option for the sake of these poor benighted souls.

But let us put aside the patronizing tone of the argument for a moment, and look instead at the simple logic of it. Gambling is in some way a danger to some group of people, something they cannot resist, which does them harm, and thus they must be protected against it. It is a consistent argument. Not one with which I would agree, mind you, nor one I think consistent with either man's nature, or the nature of reality, and certainly contrary to what I believe to be the purpose of government, but on its own terms, if you accept the underlying premises, it is fully consistent.

Until you recall that in the 70s and 80s Maryland law allowed an exception for charities holding casino nights.

Now if gambling is dangerous, a siren song for the wrong sort of people, inevitably crushing them upon the rocks of bankruptcy, what difference does it make who runs the games and for what purpose? If we ban gambling because it is harmful, how does it become benevolent, or at least innocuous, when the money goes to charity? That would be akin to allowing a YMCA crack house, or permitting the Girl Scouts to perform murder for hire. If it is dangerous, it is dangerous, and if that is the logic by which a ban is justified, then the motive of those operating the dangerous activity makes no difference***.

But, some might argue, perhaps the exception is allowed because, though still potentially harmful, most casino nights are one time events, not regular activities, and have relatively small stakes. As such, even someone highly likely to be harmed by gambling could suffer little harm, as he would have but a single night, and strict limits on wagers, and thus the benefits of allowing charities to run such events outweighs the potential harm.

Which would make sense did not Maryland also allow wagering five days a week, all day long, at the state's horse tracks. And run a once a day lottery, later adding a four digit version to the three digit one, and then moving to two drawings a day, as well as a weekly (later twice weekly) Lotto with million dollar or more jackpots. And in the late 80s added a keno game, played in bars, restaurants, nightclubs, stores and elsewhere, with drawings every five minutes. Granted, the funds from the lotteries all benefited the state, nominally going to education***, but still, it is hard to argue such a wealth of gaming options prevented the supposed "weakest among us" from doing themselves harm.  In fact, if you accept the logic of the gambling ban, it is hard to come to any conclusion other than that the state was financing itself -- and the politically influential horse racing industry -- at the expense of those it claimed to protect.

The absurdity of this was most obvious when the debates opened on allowing casino gambling in Maryland****. To hear politicians arguing that gambling would hurt Maryland, would impoverish the citizens and so on, at the same time they were expanding to two lottery drawings a day, was too much for anyone to take them seriously. To say with a straight face "we cannot allow gambling to COME TO Maryland", after authorizing horse races, lotteries, lottos, kenos and the occasional charity casino night, is just absurd*****.

It gets even more absurd. In recent years, losing revenue to slot machines in neighboring Delaware and West Virginia (as well as Atlantic City casinos, which had drawn off revenue for even longer), and with the slot revenue at horse tracks in neighboring states threatening Maryland's racing industry -- the revenues from slots allowing large purses, while attracting bigger crowds -- Maryland finally decided to allow first slots and later some casino gambling, at least in a few limited venues. At first, I took this as a triumph for common sense -- at least a limited one. Granted, the state was still strictly regulating the allowable number of casinos, and thus implicitly treating gambling as some sort of suspect activity, but at least it was confessing, after decades of lotteries and horse racing, casino gambling would not be the end of the world.

Until today, that is. Today, I saw what had to be the most absurd news item yet. Maryland, now allowing not only charitable casino nights, lotteries, horse racing, lotto and keno, but slot machines and casinos, was set to go after on line fantasy football, because it was illegal gambling! In other words, despite all the types of gambling now permissible, Maryland was still bent on enforcing a law predicated upon the idea that gambling is a danger! I cannot think of a more absurd or hypocritical legal stand.

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* See "Liberalism, Its Origins and Consequences", "Hard Cases Make Bad Law", "Man's Nature and Government", "Seeing People as Stupid", "Our View of Our Fellow Citizens", "Individual and Aggregate", "Those Other People", "Another Look At Exploitation", "Common Sense,Philosopher Kings, Arbitrary Law and Dictatorship", "Help and Harm", "Hard Cases Make Bad Law", "In Loco Parentis", "The Case for Small Government", "Harming Society", "Smoking Versus Sex -- Want and Need Take Two", "De Gustibus Non Disputandum Est", "The Life Coach Culture", "The Great 'What If?' - Advertising, Gullibility, Education, Capitalism and Socialism" and "For Your Own Good -- The Problem with Subjective Rights".

** See "The Condescention of Understanding", "Liberalism, "Idealists" and Internal Contradictions", "Humility and Freedom", "Outsider Art", "Eurocentrism? Racism? Liberal Traits All", "I Don't Get It. Actually, I Do, and It Is Horribly Insulting", "Arrogance", "The Essence of Liberalism", "Arrogance and Gun Control", "Apology as Arrogance", "Big Government, Arrogance and Part-Time Psychopathy" and "Intellect and Politics".

*** This ruse always amuses me. It is a subterfuge which fools a surprising number of people, yet one I would normally think would be too obvious to enjoy such success. Even if the law is written in an air tight way (and most are not), even if money cannot be "laundered" into other uses, allocating funds exclusively to education -- at least as long as those funds represent 100% or less of normal allocations -- means nothing. After all, for every lottery dollar "dedicated" to education, another dollar budgeted for education can be allocated to something else. It is surprising how many forget this, but money is fungible, and until the lottery income exceeds all other monies allocated, adding a dollar of dedicated lottery money does nothing but free another dollar from a different part of the budget for other uses. In short, it is meaningless.

**** As I describe in "A Most Dishonest Debate", there was also a political element involved, so some of the dishonesty was deception of another stripe. Casinos were first seriously raised by Bob Ehrlich, our first Republican governor in some time. And, not surprisingly, the Democratic legislature treated the proposal as if he had suggested using cannibals to cater school lunch programs. When he left office, and was replaced by safely Democratic Martin O'Malley, suddenly a fair number of those who decried gambling as worse than murder suddenly saw it as fiscal common sense. However, the reason I mention this at all, is a number of Democrats, despite party ties, did continue to decry gambling, making the absurd sort of arguments I described.

***** In truth, even if we had no gambling, the correct term would have been "return to", as Maryland had once had legal slot machines.

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POSTSCRIPT

Even before legal gambling came to Maryland, there was quite a bit of small scale illegal gambling as well. For example, when I worked as a bartender in the early 1990s at a small, rather middle brow yacht club, we had a number of video poker machines. The machines, quite obviously, could not be allowed to pay out on winning hands. However, they were set up to award "credits" for each win, allowing the players, when they grew tired, to ask the staff to "refund" their remaining money, which basically worked the same way a pay out would have. And I saw similar subterfuges, as well as a great deal of outright flaunting of anti-gambling laws -- throughout the 1980s and 1990s.

POSTSCRIPT II

Some may argue that the laws exist because the state worries about "rigged" or "fixed" games, and wants to control gambling to keep games honest. However, the evidence contradicts that. First of all, the words of the politicians themselves are not about the risks of rigged games, but rather the harm gambling does to individuals and families. Second, if that was the concern, then why disallow small office pools and private poker nights? Are these really likely venues for card sharps and other criminals? Third, if the worry is over fairness, then is not the solution* what we currently have? Gambling allowed but regulated and monitored by the state? After all, if cheating is your worry, a regulated, licensed gaming environment is less likely to include cheating than an underground, ad hoc, likely criminal controlled gambling environment such as exists when it is illegal. No, the laws and the words of the politicians do not support this argument.

* In truth, the best solution is to simply allow gambling. The law should be used -- appropriately -- to prosecute for fraud when real cheating is discovered, but for the most part, casinos, or other games, which pay out too infrequently or offer odds that are too long, will quickly develop their own bad reputation and be driven out by less suspect games. It may take time, but then again regulators do not guarantee all problems will be instantly identified and resolved either, so I never see why the delays of free market solutions are held up as flaws. (See "The Free Market Solution", "There Are Other Solutions", "Zero Sum Games", "Government Quackery", "Planning for Imperfection", "Competition", "The Basics", "Greed Versus Evil", "The Free Market Solution", "Two Sided Processes and Claims of 'Unfair' Outcomes", "A New Look at Intervention", "Selfishness as Reason - 'Wants', 'Needs', 'Fairness' and Other Guises for Arbitrary Decisions", "Weasel Words and Hollow Words", "The Limits of "Scientific" Management", "The Case for Small Government", "Fairness and the Free Market", "Capitalism and Its Consequences", "Another Look At Exploitation", "Third Best Economy", "The Gadarene Swine Fallacy", "Denying Reality", "The Threat of Perfection", "Utopianism and Disaster", "Two Examples of "Inefficiency" in Capitalism", "Misunderstanding the Market", "The Secret of Success, or, Why Government Fails", "Imperfect Competition, Abstraction and Anti-Trust", "Technology and 'Natural Monopolies'", "Unfair Advantage and Foreign Trade", "The Importance of Error", "Adaptability and Government" and "Redundancy as a Protective Measure".)

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