Casino Conundrum and Creational Ethics

An HB Classic

casinoCalifornia voters are being asked to vote on a ballot proposition that would allow larger casinos on the premise that it will generate more tax revenue. It’s being opposed by other gambling interests in and out of state. The folks who oppose it almost make me want to support it but I’m concerned about the growing gambling culture. I don’t think legalized gambling is a sound way to run a government nor does it seem to bode well for civil society. As I’ve noted before the rise of the gambling culture is part of the coarsening of American civil life.

It’s being sold on the premise of easy money but they never tell you about the increased social costs associated with big, legalized gambling. Someone has to pay for bigger roads (ever try to drive towards Vegas from LA on a Fri night? It’s a zoo all the way there), increased police presence (not everyone who leaves the casino does so completely sober), and for the hidden costs associated with gambling addiction. Vegas looks considerably less glamorous during the day than it does at night. Somebody has to look after those folk who stumble out of the casinos at 7AM broke and worse for wear. My guess is that it will pass whatever I do. The siren song of easy money is just too attractive in what remains gold rush country. The mines are closed but people still move to California in search of fast, easy money in real estate and, now, gambling.

One reason to oppose the lure of gambling is creation. The creational pattern, which continues after the fall, is to work and eat. That’s a different pattern than “gamble and perhaps not eat” or “gamble, borrow, eat, gamble.” Governments are meant to protect the civil peace, to restrain evil, and they are meant to be funded by means of taxes of some sort (Rom 12).

Civil life is a covenant of works: do this and live. There is also an economic covenant of works: do this and eat (2 Thess 3:10). This is a fact that big government types don’t seem to understand. The whole gambling culture of easy money is an attempt to circumvent the economic covenant of works of “work and eat.” Big government types want to turn the government and civil life into a covenant of grace. Like some conservative moralists, they can’t tell the difference between the principles of grace (unmerited favor) and works (payment earned).

Gambling is an attempt to circumvent the economic, creational covenant of works (Gen 3:19 – a restatement of the covenant of works in the context of the fall) by wealth transfer not wealth producing. Wealth is really a way of speaking of value. People buy what they need or value. Employers buy the skills and labor that they value. Customers buy the products they value. Wealth is created by creating things of value. One could argue that gamblers value gambling but one could also argue that “Johns” value prostitutes. Civil society has a right, however, to say that, on the basis of creation, some values are wrong. Prostitution tends to weaken the fundamental human association (family), denies the creational intent of sex, and creates a culture of depravity not a culture of self-control. There are natural, creational limits proscribing how humans may relate to one another sexually (Matt 19:8).

In contrast, cobblers and bakers produce things of intrinsic value. We need bread and shoes. Good cobblers and baker will, ordinarily prosper, and poor ones will not. The market tends to reward good products and services, all things being equal (e.g. the government isn’t corrupting the natural market forces). We should be clear here. The market determines the market value of a product, but there is a distinction between those products that have intrinsic value, that serve a society good, and those products or services that have only market value. It is capitalism to allow the market to determine which intrinsically valuable good or service will prosper. It is libertinism to say that there is no such thing as intrinsic value, only market value. In contrast to cobbling and baking, gambling creates nothing of intrinsic value. Rather, gambling says: “Spin this wheel and perhaps the right number will come up and you’ll get rich.” Doesn’t creation tell us something else? There’s nothing wrong with investing and taking risk but it’s a mistake to confuse gambling with risking capital.

That’s why I’m not a complete libertarian. When a society doesn’t regulate vices it sends an implicit message that such and such a behavior is permissible. Humans think to themselves, “If it were really really evil, society wouldn’t let me do it.” That’s why legalized drugs are a mistake. The drug war is ugly and probably doomed to failure but it’s better than sending the message that it’s okay to abuse drugs. Legalizing vices doesn’t discourage them and it is the creational function of the civil magistrate to discourage socially destructive vices.

This isn’t the old “no cards, no dancing, no silver screen” morality sometimes associated with the Dutch Reformed piety in earlier years. This is an argument based on creation. For example, I’ve heard arguments that betting on horses is not “gambling.” I can see that, if a horse player studies various horses and takes calculated risks, that it might not be gambling, but the major problem is that there isn’t a significant service or product involved except, perhaps entertainment. In that case, however, the investor isn’t really being entertained. So he’s making his money from the funds wasted by casual or ignorant bettors. The stock market is a risk, and perhaps, in some cases, it’s gambling. Most of the time, however, the stock market is really just a loan from investors to companies on the premise that the company will prosper (because it’s producing something that the market values). That seems unobjectionable. Investing in Apple or Intel is a far cry from pulling the handle on a machine that’s rigged in favor of the “house” or hoping a certain number turns up on a wheel.A long time ago, when I was trying to figure out what I should do with myself, my grandfather told me to get involved in producing something that people will always need (food, housing, clothing—my great great uncle was the first to drive a commercial vehicle across the Brooklyn Bridge, a hearse!). It’s hard to see the creational justification for the casino. I’m glad that the native tribes are gaining some wealth. I hope it’s doing some good. In places, I’m told, that the pay outs by shares to tribal members have simply become extravagant welfare payments — but I don’t know that as fact. I think some tribes are actually getting involved in other businesses and that’s good and after the long and ugly history of reservations, poverty, and alcoholism, signs of wealth are encouraging.

I suppose casinos are here to stay but should we encourage them to get bigger and to draw more (often senior!) gamblers to waste their money? Does civil society have an interest in encouraging genuine productivity and wealth creation rather than voluntary wealth redistribution with all the problems attendant to the lure of easy and fast money? I think so.

[This post first appeared on the HB in January, 2008]

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  1. One of the beauties of 2K is that it allows for disagreement in doing the civil realm or “creational ethics.” While I tend to agree with much of what you say, I am not so sure. Maybe I will just flip a coin. Kidding.

    “…it is the creational function of the civil magistrate to discourage socially destructive vices.” Maybe; but I guess I’d rather say that it is the role of the civil magistrate not to encourage socially destructive activities. (Never mind the problem of defining such activities…let’s assume that is easy). Maybe it’s six-of-one, but I’d rather have my sheriff wait until I break a law than take it upon himself to tell me what I ought’nt do for my own good.

  2. Dr. Clark, thanks for your insights. I have question not directly related to your post, but one triggered by it – a personal question. (I hope it’s okay to ask it here.) I’ve worked for many years for an independent “para-church” agency that focuses on evangelism, utilizing all sorts of American evangelical methods and informed by the usual evangy presuppositions. Having become Reformed, four years ago, I no longer believe in our methodology, loose ecclesiology, terrible confusion of kingdoms, etc. (though of course I still agree with our goal of reaching people for Christ).

    Hence, I question whether we are really “producing a useful product.” (We’re non-profit and supported by like-minded evangelicals.) I continue with my current job (though I’ve switched from a “ministry” to an administrative position) because it would be very difficult financially at this point for me to go elsewhere (though I would if conscience demanded it). The difficulty for me in trying to assess the ethics of my situation is that we are not really serving creation, and I’m no longer so sure we’re really serving redemption either. Do you have any advice for folks like me? Is it wrong to stay (at least until other options appear)? Thanks!

  3. Dr. Clark, good post. It does indeed seem to be the case,doesn’t it, that, though the gambling industry provides employment and tax revenue to various principalities, in the long view it diminishes vocation, offering people the idea that there is an easier (see better) way than living by the sweat of their brow, consequently disassociating what they get from what they do. And this may be a stretch, but the consequence of gambling to ideas of valuation is similar to what occurs when music is pirated rather than purchased.

    And living here in San Diego, I have seen first hand the effect that it has had not only on families financially, but how it has changed the environment of the surrounding communities simply due to a dramatic increase in traffic without the civil planning being either done or implemented preemptively.

    As always, I greatly enjoyed your post.

    Are you suggesting that the magistrate should be neutral in regards morals or only to steer away from “jumping the gun” in maintaining peace and order?

  4. I’m now feeling sheepishly like my post was really out of place since even misguided attempts at evangelism shouldn’t be compared with gambling and prostitution, but perhaps you might address the issue at some point …

  5. Hi David,

    FWIW, I think that private Christian enterprises (for and not-for profit) are fine. They ought not call themselves “the church” or attempt to the work of the church (e.g. word, sacrament, discipline) but Christians as private persons can do all manner of things that are useful.

    Whatever an entity does, it shouldn’t interfere with or try to replace the visible church. I would say that “evangelism,” properly, belongs to the visible church. Christians may and must, however, give “witness” to their faith. Whether a private, non-ecclesiastical agency, may help in that I’m not sure. WSC is that sort of an agency but we’ve been called to train pastors. We do our work as ministers for the churches.

    It’s worth thinking about. At least I hope that folks in “para” organizations will ask themselves seriously whether they should exist or whether the time and resources they spend would be more properly used in the visible church?

  6. Zrim,

    I agree. Maybe I should have put it as you did, that the state ought not (e.g. by lotteries) encourage vice.

    If the cops round up purveyors of vice, that’s okay with me. I get a little uncomfortable when the authorities start prosecuting people for things they might have done or things about which they only thought about.

  7. The drug war is ugly and probably doomed to failure but it’s better than sending the message that it’s okay to abuse drugs. Legalizing vices doesn’t discourage them and it is the creational function of the civil magistrate to discourage socially destructive vices.

    Alcohol Prohibition didn’t work in the 1900s, and narcotic prohibition is not working today. Alcohol was abused then, as it is today. Drugs are being abused today, as they would be if they were legal. I don’t imagine that I am telling you anything you don’t already know. But I wanted to inquire further about your rationalization of sticking with a so-called solution that has been a visible failure.

    Today, there is societal (MADD), governmental (“Don’t Drink and Drive!”), and commercial (“Drink ${alcoholic_beverage} responsibly!”) pressures on people’s consumption of alcohol. These same pressures would probably be brought to bear on legalized drug consumption as well. Today, governments, from city to federal, taxes alcohol: the manufacture, the transportation, and the consumption of it. Would not similar tax revenue from legalized drugs be preferable to the tax revenue from casinos? Alcohol is an actual physical product that has provided multiple people a job to produce and deliver to the customer. Legalized drugs could do the same.

    All that being said, why do you see the continued war on drugs (which you’ve admitted is probably doomed to failure) as a better alternative to the civil magistrate discouraging their use through tax levies?

  8. I may have come across as overly confrontational in my first post. If so, I do apologize. The main thrust of your post, that casinos subvert the creational ethic of working to earn a living, I agree with whole heartedly.

    I live in the St. Louis metro area, and there are 4 large casinos on the river right now, one was just recently built. On the Missouri side, the casinos are right next to the Arch (a national park area) or the football arena. Due to those factors, the areas around the casinos are fairly clean and relatively safe to walk around. On the Illinois side, the casino is the only major building that is being maintained. The area around it is run-down and littered with trash. Further down the highway are several strip clubs whose spotlights can be seen for miles. The city of East St. Louis is known for its corruption, its mismanaged resources, its poor residents and its violence. I do not doubt for a second that the casinos are a major contributer to the reputation of East St. Louis. I think without the influence of the casino providing the promise of easy money, the residents of EStL would be more apt to take pride in their city.

    Since my first comment was more of a question on a minor point of your post, hopefully this has added some substance to the discussion. 🙂 I appreciate the thought and the biblical approach you took towards this topic and look forward to reading more of your posts in the future.

  9. “I’m told, that the pay outs by shares to tribal members have simply become extravagant welfare payments — but I don’t know that as fact”

    – That’s a fact, when I was talking to people involved into this biz, many of them told me the same.

  10. Dr. Clark,

    Thanks for your response. Just to fill out the picture a bit, on the positive side, I do believe our organization produces some helpful literature. However (on the negative), the leaders of our organization definitely believe that we are a “church body” “called by God” to do the work of the church. (They have bought into the modality/sodality model popularized by modern missiology that legitimizes para-church evangelistic agencies as “the church on the move” utilizing the paradigm of Paul and his apostolic band.) This of course makes for lots of dangerous confusion and ambiguity concerning our self-identity. (In their minds we’re not merely private Christians fulfilling our calling to bear witness; we ARE the church and evangelism is OUR task.)

  11. Interesting piece Dr. Clark.

    I don’t think government has any place getting involved with gambling for the reasons you sited and more. With regards to California, I don’t see anything in our state constitution (or in the U.S. Constitution for that matter) that instructs government to profit from the spoils of gambling much less regulate it on Indian soil.

    I’m not sure I necessarily agree with your statement that “gambling is an attempt to circumvent the economic, creational covenant of works” per se. Many folks simply see it as a form of entertainment … not a means of living. This isn’t to minimize the mindset you describe in this post, that is surely present too (and maybe more predominant as well). I guess I’m saying its not black or white.

    And maybe its just the Ron Paul in me, but I’m not sure I agree that “when a society doesn’t regulate vices it sends an implicit message that such and such a behavior is permissible.” We haven’t made smoking, drinking or eating McDonald’s illegal though I doubt most will see the abuse of them as necessarily permissible or even good. I agree that some amount of regulation is needed, I’m just not sure how much and to what extent. As such, I don’t think the legalization of drugs send the message, “It’s cool to use.” The war on drugs has proven to be an utter failure with a number of unintended consequences and one might even argue has served to promote drug usage. As with alcohol prohibition, increased government regulation (which might have all the best intentions in the world) seems to have had the opposite effect of actually exacerbating the drug problem rather than curbing it. I agree with ckm above, that there are better ways for the civil magistrate to discourage vices (like abusive drug usage) without direct regulation. Taxation for example might be more effective than having Uncle Sam in your home telling you what drugs you may or may not take and how much, no?

    Again, great post and I look forward to hearing your thoughts regarding my comment here if you have time. Btw, I’d sign this post as Kirk Cameron but alas I’m logged into WordPress as wgpubs … so I guess anonymity is out, haha.

    – Wayde

  12. Aint it great. Let’s help the government out. I would oppose this myself simply on the basis that the government does not need anymore money until it can prove that it uses the money it allready has to the benefit of the citizens it serves.

    The government should not regulate the building of these establishments unless the people themselves in majority rise up civily to prevent the growth of said businesses.

    If anything this should be opposed to prevent the growth of government. As a christian there should be no casinoes permitted due to it tempting people or the government to waste money.

  13. You’re post gives me much to think about. While I have no sympathy for private casinos and certainly wouldn’t support a state run casino, I also have trouble with the idea that the NCAA basketball pool or the penny ante poker game being illegal. (it was pennies when I was in college, I suppose now it’d be dimes.)

    I have trouble with the statement “cobblers and bakers produce things of intrinsic value”. I know you’re distinguishing between producing something someone else values and the gambler trying to get rich without producing anything, but the idea that things have intrinsic value can lead to policies like price fixing as just one example. After all, if a pair of shoes has intrinsic value then the cobbler should receive that intrinsic value, no more and no less. Any more and he’s price gouging, any less and he’s conducting “unfair trade practices”.

    To lay out a complete theory of value would require an entire book such as Principles of Economics by Carl Menger.

  14. CKM,

    I’ve been tempted to take the libertarian position on the drug war. I know Buckley has.

    There is a difference, of course, between alcohol and most narcotics. I suppose marijuana could be produced with a lower level of narcotic (THC as I recall) but the inherent effects are still probably worse than alcohol. Perhaps legalized pot wouldn’t be so bad. I don’t know. Heroin is right out. Cocaine: right out. Most of the illegal narcotics are too dangerous to be legalized. The places where legalization has been tested seem to illustrate the failure of legalization. The drug war has been fought badly because it has focused on the production rather than the demand. It’s users who should be punished. If the demand is curbed then the social problem eases. Spraying crops does nothing to curb demand. Even legalized using would still create great social dislocation and expense. Heroin addicts are useless to everyone as citizens. Chronic pot smokers are no worse. The same is true of some chronic alcohol users and we should punish them too. Drunk drivers should be punished severely. In my draconian opinion driving drunk is like discharging a shotgun into a crowd and should receive the same penalties. On the second conviction you go away for life. That might curb demand.

    “But then we’ll have to have even more prisons!” So? Government is only meant to do a few things and incarcerating criminals is one of them. “Too expensive!” Let the convicts pay for their own care. Let them fix roads and perform other social services.

    Civil society is a covenant of works.

  15. WG,

    The constitution affords states and cities the right to control gambling. Do you think that gaming was possible in the 18th and 19th centuries? Local municipalities controlled it quite strictly.

    The reservation system didn’t exist when the constitution was ratified. The necessity is created by the creation of the reservations. Further, the tribes have only limited sovereignty. They’re still subject to federal controls. Because the states may not be able to regulate them, then the feds must.

  16. Servius,

    The idea of intrinsic value doesn’t lead necessarily to price controls. That’s why I put the idea of “intrinsic value” in the context of market value. A shoe has intrinsic value because it can be worn. People need shoes. That need is an intrinsic value, but the price of the shoes is a function of market value. Any attempt to set the price arbitrarily flouts the market and leads to unhappy consequences. I lived through price controls and we all saw how they failed.

    There’s no necessary contradiction between intrinsic and market values.

  17. I’m curious if you’d take it as far as the RPCNA does in its testimony. Surely things like bingo, raffles, and bets (perhaps penny bets) can be entirely for entertainment value rather than greed?

    4. Gambling is a sin against God because it denies His providential care and increases dependence on the erroneous notion of luck or chance. It
    involves and encourages greed and the desire to get something for nothing
    at the expense of others. Its satanic [Chapter 5: Of Providence
    (Larger Catechism: 18-20, 141-142; Shorter Catechism: 11-12)
    A-24 CONFESSION TESTIMONY] character is demonstrated in the way
    it obsesses individuals. Some examples of unwarranted gambling the Christian should avoid are lotteries, bingo for gain, wagerings, raffles and bets. Many of the same objections may be brought against sweepstakes, door prizes, drawings and other similar practices. The Church should testify
    against the dependence of public agencies on revenues derived from
    gambling sources.
    2 Thess. 3:9-10; Prov. 15:27; Prov. 16:
    33; Ex. 20:15, 17; 1 Tim. 6:9-11.

    Seems as though making a rule for the entire thing could staunch liberty in Christ, and wisdom rather than simple rule-making should be used. Of course, I suppose the discussion is whether gambling is a part of the Law to begin with.

    -Joel Weyrick

  18. Joel,

    Well, Christian liberty is limited! The old Dutch Reformed communion form used to list gambling as one of the gross sins. I suppose we could talk about what qualifies as gambling. I tried to suggest that there is perhaps a difference between taking a risk and gambling. Capitalism implies risk. Personal property implies risk. There’s nothing wrong with risk, but gambling trivializes providence.

    Maybe, with the rise of pervasive acceptance of gambling, this is a place where we can be distinct? We don’t have to be asinine about it, but maybe in a frivolous age we should be the serious ones?

    From an economic pov, lotteries are exceeding stupid. Because they are such a horrible use of resources they are sinful for that reason alone just as throwing money out the window would be stupidly sinful.

    I might not say everything the testimony says on this point but I think it’s headed in the right direction.

  19. I suppose I was immediately dismissive of the notion that gambling is outright sin, and that covetousness, greed, or something of that nature is the sin to be avoided- gambling just being a *possible* way to act on greed. I’m thinking of my grandma who apparently took a few bucks to the casino for entertainment on occasion, which didn’t apparently stem from greed or even a lack of belief in providence.

  20. Haha, yes of course. I suppose I was looking for a “Thou shalt not gamble.” I don’t know that I can think of any, unless you assume that implicit in the definition of gambling is greed, covetousness, etc.

  21. You’re right. The U.S. Constitution allows states to regulate things like gambling. I’m not questioning that. I’m questioning California’s right based on IT’S state constitution to do so on Indian soil. I just don’t see it’s California’s business to tell the Indians how many machines they can have or to profit from it.

    Btw, good to see your blog is attracting good folk like my buddy Willie! I’m glad to see him on the straight & narrow after that horrible stint on “Charles in Charge”

  22. According to my father, gambling/the lottery is a tax on imbeciles.
    For those mentored on GI Williamson’s S. Cat. study guide, gambling is a violation of the 8th commandment.

    And while I am not in favor of taking drugs or necessarily legalizing them, somehow the War of Drugs, like that on Poverty or Terror, seems to produce more of bad behavior.
    It’s really not the Federal govt.’s business.
    Moreover at one time, a lot of drugs were legal in America, but their use and abuse was not glorified non stop in the popular media and music.

    Neither are the SWAT team no-knock drug raids a good precedent when it comes to the Fourth Amendment. But what else is new?
    If the Constitution isn’t too big to read, it’s pretty old fashioned and written by a bunch of racists.

  23. The stock market is a risk, and perhaps, in some cases, it’s gambling. Most of the time, however, the stock market is really just a loan from investors to companies on the premise that the company will prosper (because it’s producing something that the market values). That seems unobjectionable.

    I would venture to claim that most of the time, investing in the stock market is not a bet that a company will prosper as much as a bet that the market will perceive the stock as valuable and cause the “value” to rise, so they can extract profit with no effort. And of course, there’s options and other indirect investment methods, which is undeniably the same as gambling.

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