Should Gambling be Regulated?
David Green, 20 October 2004
An unusual coalition against reform of the gambling law has emerged. The Daily Mail is running a campaign but will not have expected support from Polly Toynbee in today’s Guardian. The main thrust of her argument was that deregulation will increase addiction. She also reminds her readers of the experience of Atlantic City in the USA. It was hoped that the introduction of gambling would bring about economic regeneration, a hope that the British Government shares. But, if you drive to the gambling district of Atlantic City, you drive through the same slums that were there before the casinos opened. Moreover, there is even evidence that the casinos have driven out local leisure-related businesses. The free drinks that are liberally dispensed to encourage gamblers to go further, the free or cut-price food, and free shows make it impossible for rivals to survive for miles around.
Gambling is an issue, like drug addiction, that probes the frontier between classical liberalism and libertarianism. Libertarians are inclined to argue that the government should ‘get out of the way’ and let people do as they wish. For them, controlling gambling is an example of the nanny state. However, the control is not so much being exerted on gamblers but rather on people who exploit their weakness. The big profits are in the slot machines where, in a heady atmosphere, punters pull the handles or press the buttons as many times a minute as they can. For many, their mood is a bit like that of a motorway driver who knows he is too tired to carry on safely, but nevertheless presses on to his destination. In other contexts it is a human attribute that leads people to overcome diversity and persevere regardless of hardship.
Gambling corporations have become adept at exploiting such human inclinations to the point of addiction, encouraging people to part with money they and their families often can’t afford to lose. It is a legitimate use of law to regulate organisations who exploit the weakness of other people for monetary gain. Banning gambling altogether would be going too far, but putting limits on the number of outlets and the size of the winnings is sensible, given human nature as we know it.