The Ethics of Legalized Gambling: A Debate

Over at “The Economist” website, two articulate and well-qualified opponents are debating the wisdom of state sanctioned gambling. The debate will be “settled” by a vote of the site’s readers.

The two advocates cover the topic thoroughly and well, and I will  link to the debate rather than attempt to supplement it in detail, except to say this:

The argument by pro-gambling Libertarian Radley Balko that a government has no business telling it citizens what is right and wrong ignores the vital role of leadership and government in building healthy and virtuous cultural norms. And his contention that so-called “consensual crimes” only harm willing participants is deluded when applied to gambling. In a mutually dependent society where our fates are inextricably linked and where success depends on mutual responsibility and consideration, individual bad choices have significant impact on others. We are called on to help pay for other people’s health problems, their unemployment, their collapsed businesses, the care of the children they cannot support, and many other results of irresponsible individual conduct. This Libertarian argument only works in a Libertarian government where there is no welfare, few taxes, and people have to clean up their own messes. That’s a fantasy, which makes Balko’s argument a fantasy.

Finally, the position that the best solution to persistent crimes the government cannot prevent is to make the crimes legal is a capitulation to “Everybody does it,” and ethically offensive. It is one of the ten worst popular arguments of all time.

11 thoughts on “The Ethics of Legalized Gambling: A Debate

  1. Thanks for the great link!

    It’s hard for me to reconcile what I believe on this issue since I agree with both sides arguments. What is your term for this? Train-wreck? Impasse? Conflict?

    I know these things:
    1) Responsible gambling can be a form of entertainment and cost less than a baseball game or a night at the movies.

    2) Towns with legalized gambling look like crap with gawdy billboards and slot machines in every nook and cranny. It feels like an over-sized ghetto.

    3) Gambling isn’t a victim-less crime. It’s ill effects put a large strain on government.

    4) Gambling is a business that creates jobs & tourism.

    Wouldn’t increased legalized gambling hurt places like Las Vegas and Atlantic City? Right now, I’d rather drive 40 minutes up to Blackhawk, CO with their $100 limits than to have to spend money on flights and hotels in Las Vegas. The greatest threat to Vegas’s tourism is an expansion of legalized gambling in this nation.

    I think having a “Gambling Oasis” in the state is a good practice. It keeps it out of the immediate vicinity of “everyday life” and nearly unobtainable for those who can’t reach it (read: Those who [absolutely] can’t afford it.)

    I look forward to reading more on this issue throughout the day.


    I heard about this via Albert Mohler. He’s a theologian, so all his commentary is ultimately couched in a Christian world-view, however, his commentary is Ethically accurate regarding the State’s abuse of the People with lotteries.

    This is Albert Mohler’s commentary on this:

    “Next, while we’re talking about economics and morality, of course we come to gambling, big issues continue to reveal themselves, this time, again, from USA Today. Just in recent days, a headline,

    “Mega Millions Looks to Deliver Attention Grabbing Jackpots.”

    Now, as we have said, there are few more morally instructive examples, in terms of our contemporary culture, than the state-sponsored turn to gambling for revenue. In particular, the predatory nature of the entire lottery business made more predatory by the fact that the people who are least able, in the sense, to risk money and the loss of that money by gambling are the ones that are directly targeted. The states are praying on their own people, and the most vulnerable of their own people, by seeking to entice them to risk more and more, which means to lose more and more. The article by David P. Willis in USA Today offers this

    “Five things you need to know as the ticket price rises to two dollars.”

    The bottom line of it is there are going to be some very manipulative techniques undertaken by the lotteries included in this Mega Millions game. One of those is the fact that even though your chances of winning the big jackpot are significantly reduced, they’re going to increase the number of smaller prizes because the announcement of the smaller prizes is likely to entice persons to risk more money in gambling because of the appearance that there are more winners. Of course there will be more winners, but concomitant with that is going to be the fact that there are more losers losing more. And even as they’re talking about the opportunity to risk more in order to win more, USA Todaysays, and I quote,

    “Overall, the chance of winning any prize will go from 1 in 15 to 1 in 24 with the changes.”

    And that’s any prize. Most of these prizes are financially insignificant masking the fact that gamblers have actually lost far more money than they may claim or even believe in an instant that they have won. That tells us something else about human nature. Someone who goes week after week, week after week risking say $2 or $10 a week and then wins a $50 prize may be very, very happy about that $50 prize, imagining, only having invested say the $2 to $10 in that given week. Left behind is the fact that they’ve actually been investing hundreds and hundreds of dollars; that’s how the lottery works, that’s what these states that offer these lotteries depend upon.

    But then a story that appeared in the New York Times, not in the financial pages, not on the front page, but rather on the sports page, and this has to do with the veteran NFL figure Brent Musburger, and, in this case, it is about the fact that he has an entirely new endeavor. He is no longer the host of the CBS pioneering live pregame show “NFL Today,” instead, he is now the announcer on what is known as the Vegas Stats and Information Network, or VSiN. Its described in the New York Times as,

    “a family business aimed at building a streaming service offering actionable information for sports bettors.”

    It’s family because the company was started by his nephew who saw in Brent Musburger an opportunity to grab name advantage and someone who has credibility in terms of sports reporting, in order to shift to what has been virtually forbidden in terms of the NFL and professional sports, and still is, according to the NFL, but what have here is a new streaming network with Brent Musburger, and just note how it’s described here, it is building a streaming service offering actionable information for sports matters. What does that mean? It means information that bettors are suggested to use in order to gain an advantage in placing their wagers.

    The New York Times article also cites Musburger as saying that he believes that sports betting is going to become legal within three years. He also went on to say,

    “You are not stopping gambling. … Learn to live with it and move on.”

    Now considering Brent Musburger’s long association with the NFL, and the NFL’s insistence that, at least for now, it has absolutely nothing to do with organized betting, Musburger said to the New York Times,

    “Let’s face it — gambling is the foundation of the NFL, and every other sport’s popularity.”

    Musburger went on to say,

    “It’s more fun to watch the game if you have a few bucks on it and in this day and age of information, it’s time to bring it in out of the dark. Gamblers are smart people. Let’s treat them like it.”

    Musburger in the article openly assailed what he calls the hypocrisy of the NFL when it comes to sports betting. He notes the fact that two of the veteran owners in the NFL, Art Rooney of the Pittsburgh Steelers and Tim Mara of the New York Giants, are close friends as well as gamblers. The article tells us that Musburger suggest that

    “the NFL should drop its opposition to gambling and start addressing,”

    what he said are

    “more pressing problems like anthem protests and players’ head injuries, which are contributing to lower television ratings and a decline in participation in youth football.”

    Musburger said,

    “They are trying to figure out how to make money off it … Otherwise, why would they vote 31 to 1 to move the Oakland Raiders here [that means to Las Vegas unless they understood where it all was going?”

    Well, once again you may not have been looking for a major morality play in the sports section of the New York Times, but there it is. Of course, the entire enterprise of gambling is based upon the fact that, contrary to Brent Musburger, gamblers aren’t smart — if they were smart, they would realize that all those shiny buildings and all of those luxury accoutrements are actually being paid for by gamblers who aren’t making money but losing money. If the house didn’t usually win, there wouldn’t be a house when it comes to gambling, and here you see the straightforward argument that you’re not going to stop gambling, so you might as well just join it and just make it more intelligent and perhaps regulated a little bit, and I guarantee you that’s going to look very attractive to states always looking for income. Maybe what we need to do is just give up and allow this gambling in the open, as is suggested by this new streaming network that involves Brent Musburger. Maybe we should just join it, try to dress it up, and clean it up, at least in terms of appearance make it look more middle-class and mainstream, and then maybe we can just declare victory. So, as it turns out, huge worldview implications telling us a great deal about our society, about how economics reveals morality, about how people see an opportunity to create a new market in which they want first-mover advantage, the way that marijuana is now being seen as a necessary opportunity that can’t be neglected by others in the business of this kind of entertainment or this kind of product line, and then you have the fact that the word buzz has appeared in his double meaning several times in just one week.

    But then the Christian understands that business is never merely about business, sports is never merely about sports, and gambling isn’t even merely about gambling; it’s all part of a bigger story that points to the necessity of worldview analysis, which underlines why these stories were even more important than the newspapers that publish them understood.”

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