Vice Is Nice

Legal gambling is destroying Western civilization? Don’t bet on it.

William Safire and Frank Rich hail from opposite ends of the political spectrum, but on the subject of gambling, you could barely squeeze a poker chip between them. Safire preaches his immovable conviction “that casino operators are predators; that state-sponsored lotteries make a mockery of public policy; that politicians who are on the take from gambling interests are wallowing in the occasion of sin.” Counterpoint, Frank? “Already, such gambling-saturated towns as Biloxi, Miss., are looking like Jimmy Stewart’s nightmare vision of Bedford Falls in It’s a Wonderful Life. The stench of influence-peddling suffuses some state governments where gambling rules. In the Midwest, riverboat casinos can be an economic boon but sometimes suck local retail businesses dry. Statistics suggest that crime, domestic abuse and alcoholism rise in gambling’s wake–while the poor most conspicuously get poorer.”

Legal gambling brings out the latent puritan in many Americans. The right detests gambling because it promises something for nothing. The left hates it because it enriches corporations by emptying the pockets of the gullible lower classes. Republican right leader Ralph Reed and the more-liberal-than-thou Harvard political scientist Michael Sandel condemn it, as do Ralph Nader and Gary Bauer.

Everyone seems to detest legal gambling–everyone, that is, except the public. Once regarded as a low habit, gambling is now generally treated as wholesome entertainment in all states but two. Americans spend nearly $51 billion a year on various games of chance–twice as much as they spend on movies, plays, operas, and spectator sports combined.

But gambling’s place at the table is threatened by the puritans, who’ve used their political muscle to help establish a National Gambling Impact Study Commission. They hope its June 1999 report will prove their claims that gambling wrecks lives, stimulates crime, saps local economies, mercilessly exploits human weakness, and sustains itself through bribery and corruption. A review, then, and a brief refutation of their best arguments.

People Become Addicted to Gambling: The critics warn of an exploding epidemic of addicted gamblers, but a recent study by researchers at Harvard Medical School’s Division on Addictions argues against this notion. An estimated 1.6 percent of American adults will become pathological gamblers, compared with 6.2 percent who will succumb to drug addiction and 13.8 percent who will become alcoholics. A study published last year claimed that the legalization of casinos causes an increase in suicide rates. Indeed, Nevada’s suicide rate is the highest in the country, double the national average. But New Jersey, home of Atlantic City, enjoys the lowest rate. Mississippi, the South’s gambling Mecca, falls slightly below the national average.

Legal Gambling Fosters Crime: Exhibit A for the prosecution is Atlantic City, which went from being No. 50 among American cities in crimes per capita to being No. 1 after the arrival of casinos. This increase fails to account for the city’s huge influx of tourists, who on any given day outnumber residents by more than 2-to-1. As noted in a study by University of Maryland Professor Peter Reuter, homicides barely increased at all, despite the influx of outsiders, and assaults rose only about as fast as the average daily population. The real increases have come in robbery and aggravated assaults. Elsewhere, though, it’s impossible to detect any consistent relationship between the existence of casinos and the prevalence of lawlessness. Jeremy Margolis, who headed the Illinois State Police when the state introduced 13 riverboat casinos, has testified that “crime has not been a problem.” Looking at rural Colorado, Texas A&M scholar Patricia Stokowski found that with the arrival of casinos, “the likelihood of becoming a crime victim in Gilpin County has decreased.”

Legal Gambling Depletes the Local Economy: Economists normally extol anything that allows consumers to satisfy their preferences, but several members of the profession depict casinos as the enemy of prosperity. Earl Grinols of the University of Illinois excoriates them as “a shell game, attracting dollars from one person’s pocket to another and from one region to another.” Another view holds that life for the casinos means death for restaurants, car dealers, hardware stores, and other wholesome businesses unless legal gambling attracts massive numbers of new tourists.

But these are the wrong measures of the economic value of gambling establishments. Existing businesses are threatened when a new business comes to town, whether it’s Nordstrom or a shoe repair shop. No economist with ambitions for tenure would dream of dismissing a business as a “shell game” merely because its revenue diverts revenue from other businesses.

Legal Gambling Causes Corruption: Casino operators are portrayed as the Typhoid Marys of political corruption, the usual evidence being their lavish bankrolling of politicians. But of the 16 industries that gave “soft money” to the two major political parties in 1996, the gambling industry ranked 16th, according to the ultrafastidious Center for Responsive Politics.

Casino owners are right to take a greater-than-average interest in the workings of government. 1) Until recently, their industry was illegal almost everywhere. 2) They cannot operate without hard-to-get government licenses. 3) Their many enemies want to legislate them out of existence.

As long as we’re talking about corruption and exploitation, we should not forget that the wickedest gambling sharpies don’t live in Las Vegas but in the state capitals, where the lotteries are headquartered. The lotteries’ pitiful payout–about half of all money wagered, compared with 92 percent or so at your average casino–rightly draws cries of outrage. If the critics were interested in remedying the lotteries, they’d have the states repeal their monopolies on these games and let the market compete away the excess profits.

Whose Life Is It, Anyway? Gambling’s opponents never tire of reciting statistics and anecdotes to suggest that the costs of legalized gambling dwarf any possible benefits. But they fail to count the central benefit–the diversion and pleasure it provides to millions of people. Until 1978, casinos were accessible only to people with the means to travel to Las Vegas. The relaxation of prohibitionist laws has brought them within easy reach of most of the American public, and the public has voted for them with its feet. The overwhelming majority of these patrons gamble responsibly and impose no burden on their fellow citizens. They treat games of chance as exactly that–games.

Yet critics insist on portraying gamblers as a pitiable class of suckers, enslaved by fantasies of unearned wealth. It’s hard to see why. No one accuses movie theaters or gardening-supply outlets of ruthlessly exploiting the weaknesses of clients who turn over their money only because they lack the self-control to refuse. Most people who patronize the lottery, the track, or the slot machines end up poorer, with nothing to show for the transaction–which is also true of people who eat in restaurants and attend concerts. To incurable bluenoses, gambling is an infuriating scam. But why assume gamblers are being fooled? It’s more reasonable to assume that they know they will probably lose but are happy to take that chance for 1) the pleasure of playing and 2) the chance of coming out ahead.

In the end, that’s a decision they ought to be free to make, unimpeded by moralists and social reformers who think ordinary people cannot be trusted to look after their own interests. If gambling were the grim scourge portrayed by its opponents, it would not have gone from a contemptible vice to an innocent diversion in a single generation. People who have visited casinos and played the lottery have seen that misery and damnation don’t necessarily follow, either for themselves or for surrounding communities. Gambling has become a widespread pastime for the simple and unassailable reason that it adds to the sum of human happiness. That’s reason enough to leave it alone.