There's a great post up over at Daily Kos by Devilstower about gambling. While it's not really on the national radar, there's lots of debating going on about the issue at the state and local level all over the country. Generally a lot of them see gambling as a way to raise revenue "without increasing taxes". It seems that the only people willing to oppose these schemes are social conservatives, the likes of the AFA, FotF, and other groups. Usually while perusing their websites, I find that there isn't much I agree with them on, except for this issue. I think that the progressive position should end up against gambling schemes, and here's why.
My disdain for gambling, especially gambling that's supposed to provide for public works, comes from three main sources. First, gambling-to-substitute-for-taxes is an inherently wasteful and regressive tax. In Indiana, we get TV and radio ads all the time for the state lotto. Those ads are paid for by the lottery itself. There are people who have to run it for the state. Then there's the paper itself, and those colorful cards with their scratch-off surfaces and anti-forgery mechanisms aren't cheap. And, of course, the lottery has to pay the winners. It makes you wonder how much is left at the end of a ticket for actual public works.
If it weren't bad enough that it's a wasteful tax, it's also inherently regressive, and not just because poor people play more than the rich, nor because even if everyone played the same amount it wouldn't be proportionate unless everyone played with the same percentage of their salary that everyone else did. It's the entire idea of the lottery, taking a little bit of money from a lot of people and giving it to a few people, that makes it the most regressive. Add to that the fact that it usually replaces a comparatively fairer system of taxation, like income taxes or property taxes, it's enough to make a boy angry at the whole system.
The argument behind such schemes is that they're taxes without being taxes, but, if no one played, they wouldn't work. They know that some people are psychologically attached to gambling, don't have a realistic idea of their odds, or just like the fun colors and games, so they'll have a steady supply of rubes to give money to the government more happily. As one libertarian commenter on Kos said:
However, don't use lotteries to fund public sector activities. Use taxes. That sounds counterintuitive for a libertarian position, but it's not: if we want competent and effective government, we have to be willing to pay for it in a manner that is equitably distributed and establishes a direct relationship between what we're paying and what we're receiving. "Indirect" methods for anything are tyrannical and cowardly policy, and that includes "taxes" that "are not taxes" such as lotteries.
(I don't know if that's the Libertarian Party's position, but I'm willing to hope that there's something I agree with them on too that involves taxes.)
Second, gambling does nothing appreciably good for people. A farm that uses harmful pesticides to grow wheat, at the end of the day, still makes wheat. A restaurant that doesn't pay its workers a fair wage still makes food for people. A state lottery gives people maybe three seconds of "fun", and what overpriced fun that is.
Several years ago, while backpacking around these parts where I'm living now, I stopped by Monaco for a day. I gave myself 10 euro to play with, since, you know, when in Rome.... I lost nine euro in under three minutes and left angry with my last. It didn't take long for me to be nine euro poorer and for someone I've never met, who never did anything for me, to be that much richer.
While I don't like to use my experiences prescriptively, I think that gets to part of the reason I don't like gambling schemes - they just don't do anything positive and yet a whole lot of people make money off them. Call me old-school, but I like the idea of people doing something, anything, beneficial in any concrete way at all and earning money from that. That's probably just kid-of-an-immigrant attitude speaking and that in and of itself wouldn't be enough to ban private gambling. But state gambling....
Third, and Devilstower touches on this, gambling creates a whole bunch of false narratives about how easy it is to become rich. He says:
Gambling places all importance on chance, and in doing so it devalues work. In fact, it makes it much easier to keep paying people miserable wages when they get to rub off a few magic tickets each week. And stories of the janitor who won ten jillion dollars are just what you need to keep people happy with their lot. Mix in a few stories of the guy who would have won a billion, only he didn't buy a ticket with his newly rich buddies that week, and you have a perfect mix to keep people worshiping at the quick-pick altar.
While I don't agree that everything in America is about work instead of luck, it's not about the sort of luck involved in lotteries. It's the kind of luck that's involved in getting a rich daddy or mommy, being born with the right skin color, being the recipient of a Y-chromosome, or not being a big queer-mo. It obscures those power mechanisms with it's "Everyone can be a big, big winner!" advertising, with the teeny-tiny print warning people to "Please play responsibly". It's effective advertising, and if it didn't work, they wouldn't be paying to put those ads up on the TV and the radio. And in that way it gets people to internalize the economic values that ultimately hurt them.
So, there. I agree with the Religious Right on something. Although you don't really hear much about them opposing gambling (since it doesn't involve sex, sexuality, or gender, and since tax cuts for the rich are the real conservative priority). But hey, agreeing on paper is something, isn't it?