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Phil-osophically Speaking: January 26, 2012

Games of Chance

Jean Baptiste Colbert, the Minister of Finance under King Louis XIV, once famously said, “The art of taxation consists in so plucking the goose as to obtain the largest possible amount of feathers with the smallest possible amount of hissing.”

I’m sure I quoted this line once before; first because I delight in it and second because it is the truth. The one irrefutable fact about modern democracies is that they spend, spend and spend some more. It doesn’t matter whether there is money in the coffers, which is why our nation has a $15 trillion debt. As a society of entitlements and government largesse we are also a nation of taxes — high taxes.

Constituents like government services, most of them, even when though they hate to admit it, like big government. What they don’t like, however, is hefty taxes. With legalized gambling, government has discovered a way to pickpocket their constituents without getting the blame. What was the exclusive real estate of organized crime has today become ubiquitous. Cuomo sees gambling as a new kind of Manifest Destiny, it’s ordained to encompass the entire continent.  Belmont Park, the 440-acre expanse of land right in our backyard, was targeted for casino gambling. That does not appear to be happening any time soon; nevertheless it’s happening elsewhere and with light speed. Because there is now gambling in Philadelphia, the folks in Atlantic City have to be more seductive and innovative in convincing people to lose their money there instead of any other locale.

It troubles me that we have become a nation of gamblers. Over the last decade, Americans have sunk some $900 billion into games of chance. The odds of winning big money, however, are often more than 100 million to one. The “Hey, you never know” tagline has to rank as the most pathetic, duplicitous come-on in history. The scourge of gambling has depleted college funds, retirement funds, rent money, grocery money and even mortgages. Casinos use sophisticated mathematical algorithms in their gambling software to make certain they end up on the winning end. As in the days of riverboat gambling, you can’t beat the house.

Even worse, the behavior is often addictive. I’m fond of the story of the boy who confesses that he just lost $100 of his allowance money betting on a horse. “It could have been worse,” his sage father replied, “you could have won.” The thrill of chance and even the greater thrill of winning provide a rush of adrenaline.  Sadly, teenage Internet gambling is today’s fastest growing addiction. Government should fight that which is destructive to society and its members. Instead, it has chosen to become a proponent and cheerleader of these aleatory activities. What if government chose to be in the business of promoting tobacco or alcohol consumption or the use of hard drugs?

Society enriches itself by encouraging the virtues of thrift, discipline and hard work; qualities and characteristics that are the antithesis of the gambling culture. I would argue that even the benefits that are created by cash flow are limited and short-lived. Suicides among gamblers are 150 percent higher than that of the rest of the population; and I would guess that for every dollar received in gambling taxes that ultimately government spends more fighting problems directly caused by gambling.

Sure casinos generate money; so do bordellos. That doesn’t mean we should legalize prostitution, which seems to be the only vice in the catalogue of human behavior that that is widely frowned upon in our brave new world of cultural permissiveness. Gambling, moreover, disproportionately targets the most vulnerable sectors of the population. Less than one-quarter of the population buys nearly three-quarters of the tickets. Proponents try to soften this harsh reality by arguing that the proceeds of state-sponsored gambling go to benefit the children in the form of school aid. But this is mostly a lot of malarkey. Any state legislature can tell you that lottery proceeds often end up in the state’s general fund.

What gambling legislation does is prey on the poor. This idea of looking out for the little guy, the everyday Joe, redistributing the wealth to the guy on the lower end of the economic scale is dispensed with when it comes to gambling proceeds, which is among the most progressive of all taxes. There was a reason why gambling palaces were relegated to the desert; now it is found in every neighborhood. It is foolhardy to encourage people to believe, to hope, to dream that with one scratch their fortunes will be altered and their problems will disappear. While it is true that the victims of gambling are going to abuse it whether it is illegal or not, the fact is the former Secretary of Education, Bill Bennett, can afford to lose $8 million because of his addictive gambling habits but the overwhelming majority of the betting population cannot afford to lose a fraction of that. The most dangerous aspect of it all is that they lose this money so uncomplainingly.  

There is some pushback for sure; here in Floral Park and elsewhere like in the Finger Lakes, Buffalo and Niagara. They’ve seen the deleterious impact that a gambling culture has on communities and they don’t want it. Still money is the driving force; indeed capitalism itself has been the catalyst for a series of social revolutions that has rocked the moral foundations of the nation. Not all of it has been bad, some has been positive but other aspects have seriously challenged if not imploded some of society’s most stabilizing institutions. Speaking as one with conservative sensibilities, the culture war has been lost.

In some terribly important ways, the America of today scarcely resembles the one of my earliest youth. Social gravity pulls leftward, sometimes insanely so. Alexis de Tocqueville, the most prescient of our prophets, predicted back in the 1830s that America’s boisterous freedom not only has the capacity to free us from the tyranny of kings, but from tradition, morality and God. I often find myself, like the title of Robert Heinlein’s science fiction classic, A Stranger in a Strange Land, uttering as if it were a final testament the words of Dylan Thomas: Do not go gentle into that good night; rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Legalized gambling is but another ornament placed on this Christmas tree of liberation; a practice once thought to be the dominating vice of the foolish is now enshrined as just another way of doing the people’s business.