Morris: The Gambling Dilemma

June 18, 2018

by Leo Morris

Several months ago, on the occasion of state legislators yet again mulling the rescue of casinos from the doldrums, I wrote of my mixed feelings about state-sanctioned gambling.

Since occasionally I have enjoyed indulging in games of chance, I can’t claim any moral high ground. The challenge of beating the odds to reap unearned rewards is a temptation to which most of us have succumbed.

But gambling is a weakness that can become a sickness. As someone who wants to live in a decent, rational society, I am bothered by the idea of the state exploiting our human frailties to fill its coffers. Now that Indiana officials seem on the verge of plunging us into the once-forbidden territory of sports gambling, it occurs to me that further reflection on my internal conflict might be helpful.

I am happily a creature of the right, but not a doctrinaire one that any faction would claim as a purist. I am partly libertarian and partly conservative, in proportions that vary with ambient circumstances. Sometimes that mixture results in a debate with myself that would trigger a sigh of dismay in any competent therapist.

And gambling is one of the issues that kick the debate into high gear.

When I hear that the state might legalize sports gambling, the libertarian in me reacts with, “Well, so what?” What’s the point of trying to forbid something so many people are doing anyway?

That is, in fact, one of the main arguments being considered by legislators. “We’re taking something that people are doing illegally today and we are capitalizing on it by making it legal and regulating it,” Sen. Ron Alting, R-Lafayette, told the Fort Wayne Journal Gazette. “We are getting it out of back rooms and bookies and making it open and transparent.” Estimates say those back rooms and bookies already generate hundreds of billions of dollars nationwide.

Superficially, that sounds like an abdication of responsibility. Just let people do whatever they want and call it lawful.

But it makes sense from a legal standpoint. If the law gets too far ahead of what people are willing to obey, they won’t obey, and that’s no way to create a law-abiding society. Prohibition failed in large part because millions of people who had been perfectly ordinary citizens became lawbreakers overnight. And if the speed limit on a stretch of highway is 55 mph, and everybody using it drives 70, perhaps the drivers know something the regulators don’t. Call it crowd-sourcing the law.

And heaven knows it’s hard to argue that we don’t have enough laws. Even conservative observers like the Heritage Foundation have lamented the over-criminalization of America that makes every typical American vulnerable to being caught up in “a criminal investigation and prosecution . . . for something he did not even suspect was illegal.” And National Review approvingly quotes a civil liberties expert who has said the average American commits three felonies a day.

And, yet, and yet, and yet, warn my conservative instincts. It could be defended if all the state did was recognize our bad habits and tax them, as it does, for example, with cigarettes. The state profits from our vices rather than our virtues and, faced with ever higher costs, some sinners will even tire of behaving stupidly.

The state seldom stops there, however. As it grows dependent on its sin taxes, it must find ways to encourage the sin. In times of declining revenue, the State Lottery does not increase its advertising budget because it wants Hoosiers to wisely invest their money. The General Assembly does not relax the rules for casinos to lure more gamblers from Kentucky and Ohio. It does it to keep Hoosier gamblers from going to Kentucky and Ohio.

That makes the state our exploiter rather than our protector, no better than the drug pusher who gives away free samples to create more addicts. Is preying on our weaknesses what we should tolerate from government? Surely there are vices we don’t want government to profit from by encouraging — how would a government-sanctioned child prostitution operation grab you?

Before anybody points it out, yes, I can applaud the Supreme Court’s decision that opened the way for states to consider legalizing sports gambling. By striking down a federal law banning the betting in most states, declaring it none of Washington’s business, the court rightly affirmed the principles of federalism.

But no, that doesn’t resolve the debates, neither my internal one nor the one society should be having. The pros and cons of an issue do not disappear just because it has been moved from the federal to the state level.

Just to confuse the issue for those who think they have already figured it out, it should be noted that state-approved gambling is not a new obsession for government in America. Most of our colonies used lotteries as their primary source of funds, and the Continental Congress even helped fund the revolution with one. After the war, states used them for public works projects ranging from schools to bridges and canals.

States started banning lotteries in the 1820s because . . .  any guesses? Because those who ran the lotteries started absconding with the funds. “Gamblers don’t always care if the game is crooked if it’s the only game in town,” a Whittier Law School professor, I. Nelson Rose, told the Washington Post, “but they’d like somebody to win.”

That’s the danger of letting the state get too cozy with gambling. In the end, it may be that nobody wins.

Leo Morris, columnist for The Indiana Policy Review, is this year’s winner of the Hoosier Press Association’s award for Best Editorial Writer. Morris, as opinion editor of the Fort Wayne News-Sentinel, was named a finalist in editorial writing by the Pulitzer Prize committee. Contact him at


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