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States are exploiting gamblers' weakness page 2

Date published: 9/24/2013


This should disturb the libertarian right. Government, in this case, is not merely permitting private, consensual behavior. It is granting monopolies and awarding regulatory advantages to favored firms. States sometimes conduct casino border wars, locating new facilities to poach revenue from their neighbors. This has little to do with limited government. It is the active, predatory state.

And the casino/government complex should naturally disturb the left. The whole enterprise amounts to regressive taxation by stealth. Revenues are drawn disproportionately from low-income workers and retirees.

Yet, as the Institute for American Values points out, "State sponsorship of casinos is one of the most successful bipartisan public policies in today's politically polarized culture. States like Mississippi and Massachusetts may be worlds apart politically, but both have decided that casino gambling is a good way to win hard-won dollars from citizens who can least afford to lose them."

For those of us in the remnant believing that statecraft can be soulcraft, the case is particularly clear. Most theorists of self-government have maintained that certain modest virtues are necessary to democracy and free markets: deferred gratification, diligence, a prudent concern for the future. There is an ongoing American debate about the degree to which government can or should promote such virtues.

But here is an extraordinary case of government actively undermining the moral underpinnings of market capitalism for its own benefit. It holds out the promise of sudden wealth without work or productive investment, engaging in a purposeful and profitable deception. A corrupting fantasy becomes a revenue stream, dependent on persuading new generations to embrace it. Perhaps we have given up on government as a source of moral improvement. Does this mean we must accept a government that profits by undermining public virtues?

Nearly 20 years ago, William Galston and David Wasserman wrote, "While history indicates that gambling is too ubiquitous to suppress, moral considerations suggest that it is too harmful to encourage. The most appropriate state stance toward gambling is not encouragement, but rather containment."

Now we are seeing the cost of gambling, uncontained.

Michael Gerson is a columnist for The Washington Post Writers Group.

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