The D.C. gambling initiative that was passed last November will become law on Monday unless Congress vetoes it before then.
Congress does not appear likely to veto the initiative, and probably should not, because majority opinion in the District favors the legalization of commercial gambling.However, some people remain strongly opposed.
Support for commercial gambling comes from people of diverse views. Some like to gamble, some never gamble but think their taxes will be lower because of gambling revenues, and some simply prefer to use policemen to fight crimes of violence rather than to supervise the public's morals.
We have been arguing this issue for years, but the argument is far from over. The legalization of even a mild form of gambling usually gives new vigor to efforts to make the legislation more permissive, so disagreement sharpens before it abates.
I am out of step with the majority in these discussions. Most people are against gambling because they think it is immoral or they are for it because they do not consider it immoral. I don't fit that pattern.
I do not consider social gambling immoral. I do consider commercial gambling immoral. I define "social gambling" as an activity that makes true odds equally available to every participant. I define "commercial gambling" as an enterprise set up by an entrepreneur who offers something less than true odds to players, thereby assuring himself a profit at their expense.
It may be foolish for friends to play cards for money, but I would not call them immoral. In social gambling, everything that is lost by one person is won by another, and the community of players is not harmed.
Commercialized gambling, on the other hand, is immoral because it takes huge amounts of money from a community that is enticed to try to beat unbeatable odds.
If there is logic to my basic position, then a city or state must be branded immoral when it sets up a commercial gambling game or, through its taxing power, becomes the partner of private entrepreneurs who buy licenses to set up such games.
In short, my judgment of what is moral and what is not is based on the question, "How will the community as a whole fare under this law or that law?"
Laws that permit a circle of friends to shuffle a few dollars from one pocket to another and then back again seem to me to do no great violence to the community. When there is no rake-off for "the house," eight friends can play poker (or showdown, for that matter) for a year and end up with everybody just about even. But if the game is operated for the profit of an entrepreneur (the state and/or its licensed partners), the eight players will all be significant losers over a period of time. "The house," must win; the players (as a whole) must lose.
One who lures unsophisticated lambs into this kind of no-win activity is as immoral as any other flimflam operator or bogus stock manipulator.
As you can see, I am not opposed to gambling per se, but I am opposed to issuing government licenses that permit the rich to get richer at the expense of people who ought to know better but don't.
So much for morality. Now let's talk about government revenues.
As I noted earlier, some people who do not gamble are content to take tax revenues from the pockets of people who do. Theoretically, gambling revenue reduces other taxes.
However, I think this is a delusion. Politicians always find a way to spend every dollar of revenue that can be raised, either through visible taxes or hidden taxes. The only time politicians curtail their spending is when the tax burden becomes so excessive that voters rebel. So it appears to me that if we give the politicians additional money from gambling, they'll find ways to spend it; and if we don't give it to them they'll just have to curb their spending at a lower level.
Incidentally, there is also a philosophical basis for being opposed to commercial gambling. E. M. Fox of Springfield puts it this way:
"A major problem with gambling is that it trains people to depend on luck, and to neglect constructive problem solving."
In other words, one who depends on a lucky lottery ticket to pay his rent may occasionally be able to afford to live at the Watergate for a short time. But he is far more likely to find himself sleeping in the streets.