Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Why I hate gambling

My personal philosophy is about 50 percent libertarian, 40 percent utilitarian, and 10 percent moralist. The libertarian and utilitarian usually keep the moralist pretty well contained: they have a 9 to 1 advantage, after all. But reading a recent article in Slate from the wife of a professional gambler let the moralist in me escape.

My view is that there are three kinds of gamblers, all of which sadden me.

First, there is the compulsive gambler. When I was growing up, the husband of one of my mother’s coworkers lost all their money in a fit of compulsive gambling. This occurred just as their teenage daughter was getting ready to apply to college. The college savings, as well as all their other savings, were gone. Watching this experience has most likely colored my view of the activity more broadly.

Second, there is the recreational gambler. He spends, say, $20 a week on slot machines or lottery tickets. Some say this is a fun diversion. But given the availability of books, movies, plays, museums, checkers, chess, etc., it is an unfortunate reflection on a person’s imagination when a scratch lottery ticket is the best diversion he can find. (I'll go easy on the person who plays small-stakes poker among friends, because the socializing is a much bigger part of the activity than is the gambling.)

Third, there is the professional gambler, such as the one in the Slate article (or the boyfriend of blogger Jacqueline Passey). In some ways, this case is the saddest of all. I have no doubt that some people can, in fact, make a living gambling. But doing so requires a lot of intelligence and savvy. It is a shame that someone with so much inherent ability wastes it doing something of such little social value.

None of this has much implication for public policy. The libertarian in me says people can waste their lives if they want. The utilitarian points out that governmental attempts to suppress gambling are likely to be fruitless and would foster a large underground economy. But the moralist still makes me sad when I observe the phenomenon.

Okay, I got that off my chest. The libertarian and utilitarian will now put the moralist back in his cage.