California 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]