The Case Against Expanding Gambling

Robert Morrison is Senior Fellow for Policy Studies at Family Research Council. This article appeared in The Daily Caller on August 27, 2014.

With some state governors pushing to increase gambling, and with some Americans understandably confused about states' rights and federalism, it's time to consider whether legalized gambling should be encouraged or not. Can states ease pressure on hard-hit taxpayers by legalizing various forms of casinos and off-track betting on horse racing? And should it spread to the Internet?

A personal vignette may serve here. When I worked in Connecticut in the early 1980s, I would regularly drive the half-hour to my office and pass the state-sponsored OTB parlor.

Off-Track Betting had been legal for some years by then. I would always see cars filling the parking lot outside the OTB parlor an hour before it opened at 9 am. There was a brisk trade going on between the cars as people who had been attracted to OTB soon learned that they could find numbers runners there.

But if the State Lottery had made numbers running obsolete, why would anyone need to deal with illegal policy rackets? Very simply, because winnings from the illegal numbers game were not subject to Connecticut's high tax rates. And by setting up OTB parlors, the Constitution State had very helpfully provided a venue to attract addicted gamblers. Or, as a cop colorfully told me at the time: If the state sets up a honey wagon, don't be surprised if it draws flies.

Arriving at my office in Clinton, I would go downstairs every morning to get a newspaper and a cup of coffee at the corner drugstore. I soon saw a group of "regulars" enjoying their coffee and Danish and scratching away on little cards, Connecticut Lottery stubs, itching to see whether they had bought a winning ticket.

I would see the town folk there frequently enough become friendly. These were nice people and, from picking up snatches of their conversation as I hurried back up to my office, I could tell they were humorous and intelligent New Englanders.

Yet returning to that drugstore for lunch, I was surprised at how many of the same ticket scratchers were still there at noon. They had whiled away their morning in pleasant conversation and gambling.

Connecticut was then struggling to get out of the recession into which Jimmy Carter's policies had plunged us. And these folks at the counter had the age and experience to have come up with new goods and services to help America's ailing economy. Or, at least, they might have provided the kind of skilled workers whose commitment to a good day's work for a good day's pay might have been helpful.

Connecticut, also known as the little Nutmeg State, had been a giant in America's industrial revolution. Abraham Lincoln, in an 1860 pre-campaign swing through the state, had praised its hard working people and had committed himself to the rights of free labor. Asked in Hartford about what he thought of a strike by workers in a shoe factory, Lincoln the anti-slavery lawyer and politician said he was glad to be in a state where the workers were free to strike for better pay and conditions.

We all value liberty, it is true. And it may well be that government is not best advised to try to enforce every virtue by law and stamp out all vice. There is always that libertarian impulse, as expressed memorably by the Sage of Baltimore, H.L. Mencken. He said that New England's Puritans did not ban bear-baiting out of any sympathy for the suffering of the bear, but out of the dark suspicion that somewhere someone was enjoying himself.

Still, when I consider the well-documented harms to families and society of gambling addiction, when we see young parents driven to extremes by indebtedness, children left in cars outside of casinos, and all the rest, we should all question the wisdom of state-sponsored gambling. After our family moved away from Connecticut, a famous casino opened up on Indian reservation land.

The promoters had promised many new jobs. But they never said much about the kind of work that might entail, such as the minimum-wage labor needed for "seat changer." What's that? It is a casino worker who replaces the soaked cushions on the plastic seats. It seems that some gamblers are so intent on pulling the handles of slot machines that they cannot make it to the restrooms.

I think of Lincoln in this connection, too. He summoned loyal Americans to defend their Union in 1861. And he said this people's government would protect our fundamental right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Isn't legal gambling the way some people pursue their happiness? Lincoln added an important qualifier. This government, he pledged, would "clear the paths of laudable pursuit."

It may be legal, but is it laudable? Would we have such a conflicts over immigration - legal and illegal - and over presumed income inequality if more Americans practiced that Yankee work ethic? Under this administration, more Americans are not working than at any time in our long history.

We need to stress Mr. Lincoln's Laudable Pursuits. He was a model of that work ethic. We have no record of a single day in his life when he was not working. And we need the kind of work ethic that Connecticut once represented to the world.