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The Quality of our Mercy

Gambling promises the poor what property performs for the rich -- something for nothing.

George Bernard Shaw

 Time spent in a casino is time given to death, a foretaste of the hour when one's flesh will be diverted to the purposes of the worm and not the will.

Rebecca West

 There has been a good deal of debate about the proliferation of government-sanctioned gambling across North America. Many have observed that alcohol and tobaccos taxes mean governments already have a  large stake in the drug trade. With gambling profits pouring in, the only element distinguishing governments from traditional criminals is prostitution.

Indeed, with businesses in Toronto boasting live sex acts to encourage patrons, and couch dancing in VIP booths for the ambitious  customers, tax revenues from de facto prostitution are already flowing.

The public relations campaign legitimating government-convened gambling involves funnelling some of the proceeds into 'wholesome undertakings'. At the municipal level, lottery and bingo licences are restricted to charitable organizations.  A portion of casino and lottery profits are distributed - with great fanfare - to hospitals and infrastructure projects. The implicit claim? Gambling may be unfortunate behaviour, but it might better occur in government-monitored establishments - especially if the proceeds can then be diverted to wholesome ends.

Moreover, if gambling is going to occur come what may,  governments should get involved to pre-empt criminals.  A similar argument is made with respect to legalizing marijuana.

Against those who urge that gambling is addictive, governments insist that only a few individuals are vulnerable; and that governments are best positioned to put surveillance and therapeutic processes in place.

There are two questionable assumptions in these claims. The first is that, for the most part, gambling is wholesome entertainment. The second is that gambling is rarely addictive. Suppose that gambling is historically addictive for five per cent of the population. It is fair to ask how much more addictive gambling will become when  sanctioned and sanitized by governments.  Government-sanctioned gambling advocates cannot simply claim that government involvement will improve the purity of the product. It remains to be seen whether government involvement will yield a net public good. Politicians seem to be aware of this.  They take every opportunity to publicize the names of winners and distribute a portion of gambling revenue to worthy causes.

This leads to a different question: Do the charities and hockey rinks receiving support from government-convened gambling themselves have sufficient moral stature to support otherwise dubious undertakings?  In fact, there are two questions:

  1. Do morally excellent ends such as charities and infrastructure projects justify government-abetted gambling? More generally, do ends ever justify means?
  2. Are charities, ice surfaces and new tubas for the school band morally excellent?

It appears that 1) merits a yes. Mind you, any philosophy student will be glad to point out that ends justifying means arguments involve utilitarianism, a moral calculus able to sanction broiling children if sufficiently dire consequences attach to alternatives.

Let us agree, even so, that morally excellent ends sometimes justify dubious means.   Are charities and indoor ice surfaces morally excellent? Such questions are rarely asked.  Even committed utilitarians often struggle over whether (these) ends justify (these) means. In the case of charities and gambling-funded ice surfaces, we would do well to ask whether such ends constitute an unequivocal good. If not, this precludes using them to legitimize gambling.

How would such a question get answered? We could recall that charitable activities are as old as recorded history. In Third World nations, millions depend upon the largesse of well-to-do countrymen and international aid for a miserable existence. Closer to home, North Americans are seeing a growing demand for soup kitchens, food banks, flop houses and welfare support. In spite of centuries of charitable undertakings, the chasm between rich and poor is widening. In the United States and Canada, medical and educational facilities, sports complexes, pension schemes ... indeed, all the accoutrements of middle class living ... are under pressure. When combined with exploding public-debt, an aging population and unemployment statistics running to ten per cent in 2010 ... governments find lottery and slot machine revenue doubly attractive. They are de facto taxes that require no legislation and appear voluntary.  They camouflage regressive practices and encourage 'light at the end of the tunnel' fantasies.

This is just the tip of the iceberg. Transferring gambling revenues to charities and infrastructure programs absolve governments and taxpayers from responsibility. Charities are palliatives transferring responsibility for well-being to supererogatory activities ... to volunteers, donors and do-gooders.

Charitable activities also reduce recipients with legitimate claims to beggars and outcasts.  The rest of us get something as well.   Whenever cornered into making a donation, we get to feel charitable.  If we are able to resist, we gain opportunities to point out that never-do-wells deserve their fate.

In short, charities and lottery-abetted community projects signal an ominous step along a familiar path. First world nations with rich, middle-class and poor populations are collapsing into the rich-poor model most human beings have never escaped.  Charities represent wealthy First Worlders disengaging themselves from the communities and political responsibilities that made their wealth possible. Recipients have little choice save gratitude, acceptance and despair; while benefactors enjoy the affirmations attending alms giving.

For at least two thousand years, charities have served rich-poor economies wonderfully.

Recently charitable activities  have become even more sophisticated. Western governments invented state-sponsored lotteries, race tracks and slot machines - and then had the temerity to refer to the results as the gaming industry.

This chicanery encourages the poor and soon-to-be poor to throw their remaining money on the table.

Periodically, with flashing lights and fanfare, the results are disbursed: a portion to winners, a portion to this or that community project ... and most to places that are none of your business.