Acton Commentary

Betting on Gambling is a Risky Wager


The budget deficits hitting many states have sent elected officials scurrying after new ways to increase tax revenue. Some interesting and creative ideas have been bandied about, and the budget difficulties have even sparked the creation of an Internet-based budget “game” that taxpayers can play to get a feel for how difficult balancing a state budget can be.

Some, however, have put forward the idea of expanding the legalization and promotion of gambling. The State of Michigan, for example, has recently introduced new gambling opportunities for bar patrons, with the hope that “Michigan's schoolchildren will benefit from the extra $50 million these new games are expected to generate.” But the drive to expand state-promoted gambling is being presented in a way that is devoid of any real moral reflection. The reasons given in support of such a course of action usually do not appeal to any justifications beyond the pragmatic “bottom-line” concerns of the budget.

To be sure, there is no firm moral agreement on the issue of gambling within the Christian community (see the statements/positions of the Christian Reformed Church , the Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod , and the United Methodist Church , for example). The Catechism of the Roman Catholic Church acknowledges gambling's ambiguous moral character: “ Games of chance (card games, etc.) or wagers are not in themselves contrary to justice. They become morally unacceptable when they deprive someone of what is necessary to provide for his needs and those of others. The passion for gambling risks becoming an enslavement. Unfair wagers and cheating at games constitute grave matter, unless the damage inflicted is so slight that the one who suffers it cannot reasonably consider it significant.” Many denominations take a similar position, careful to recognize the mix of good and evil aspects presented by gambling.

Given the history of state governments and their stewardship (or lack thereof) of state lotteries, is there any reason to doubt that the move to expand gambling is simply a way to find new foraging ground for bloated, but ever-voracious, bureaucracies? Michigan State Senator Michael Switalski (D-10 th District) detailed in his publication, The Insider , an example of the “bait-and-switch” technique used by the State of Michigan in advertising lotteries as a way to increase funding for public schools. (The amount of money spent on public schools was never increased; the lottery revenues simply allowed money to be reallocated elsewhere). This inconsistency is readily apparent when in successive advertisements on the radio, the Michigan Department of Health airs an ad about the dangers of gambling, and the State Lottery follows right afterwards with an ad touting a new and exciting game.

Using the argument that further legalization of gambling ought to be pursued because it will open up new tax fields is a sure way to find oneself in a moral quagmire. Some elected officials have already made similar “bottom-line” arguments for the legalization and taxation of prostitution and marijuana . How long will it be before the states find themselves branching into more perilous territory? Why not legalize assisted suicide and tax it to the hilt? These are the kinds of questions that will inevitably be faced when the impetus to feed the leviathan of government by any means available runs unchecked.

The Salvation Army in the past has rejected contributions gained from lotteries out of concern for the organization's moral integrity. State legislators should take a cue from the Salvation Army and shape legalized-gambling policy based on the recognition of the rights, duties, and best interest of their constituents rather than economic and political expediency. Elected officials often argue that what's best for the government is best for the people, a variation on the “what's good for the goose is good for the gander” appeal. This is not always true.

On Nov. 4, voters in many states drew the line. Measures intended to expand casino gambling were voted down in Maine, Iowa, Colorado and Michigan.

There needs to be a sense of moral discernment and concern in these discussions that is often sorely lacking in the modern political arena. This decision cannot be made purely on economically pragmatic grounds. As Lord Acton said: “Political economy cannot be [the] supreme arbiter in politics. Else you might defend slavery where it is economically sound and reject it where the economic argument applies against it.”