January 4, 2006

Abramoff, Gambling and Public Policy

I know, we could make a fortune, but where can we have the game?
The Biltmore garage wants a grand
But we ain't got a grand on hand.
And they now got a lock on the door
To the gym at P.S. 84.
There's the stock room behind the McCloskey's bar.
But Mrs. McCloskey ain't a good scout.
And things being how they are
The back of the police station is out!

--The Oldest Established, from Guys and Dolls
Jack Abramoff has plead guilty, and many are quaking in their boots.

Chickens have a way of coming home to roost. Some of it's just plain corruption, and some of it is due to the Republicans having become the party of government. As Lord Acton said, "Power tends to corrupt; and absolute power corrupts absolutely."

It would be naïve to think that any brand of conservative ideology (to the extent Congressmen have an ideology other than "Me, me, me!") would prevent the GOP from becoming just as corrupt as the Other Party is when it has power. Just witness the history of Republican Orange County, California, where I live.

More to the point is the fact that Abramoff's machinations largely involved legalized gambling, in this case that bizarrely vouchsafed to Indian tribes. Over a generation or two, we have seen legalized gambling spread from church social halls and Las Vegas to most of the country. When California had its lottery initiative, and I was briefly a budding politician, I was asked to support the initiative. To the surprise of my political consultants, I refused.

Instinctively, I felt then, and feel now, that although nothing's wrong with a penny ante social poker game, legalizing large-scale gambling is a mistake.

I'm not sure why serious Protestants condemn gambling, and Catholics sponsor it, and although I acknowledge that lotteries, at least, are a tax that lays heavier on the willing poor than on the rich, I haven't really analyzed these arguments.

I have two points to explain my feeling. The first is that large-scale gambling somehow lowers the moral tone of society. A neon sign flashing "Casino" doesn't make me feel warm or fuzzy. It makes me feel we have all lowered ourselves. This reaction is more a feeling than an idea, and perhaps it's really some form of snobbism. I don't know.

The second point is that large-scale gambling seems to invite corruption. Large pots of money lying around, that can be increased markedly by a few short cuts, don't bring out the best in people. Rather they attract the sleazy, especially when the government gives the casinos monopoly or oligopoly power. In addition to the house percentage, there are monopoly rents to be had. So it's no surprise that an Abramoff became involved in the politics of gambling and will drag many others with him.

Prohibition seemed to increase the corrruption that surrounded alcohol production and marketing, and its repeal reined it in. I suspect that same might be true of drugs. Legalization of alcohol has, and of drugs would, bring other evils in their train, such as an increase in addiction and the pain it causes the addicted and those around them. But it seems to have reduced the involvement of the mob, perhaps because the degree of monopoly rents available, in most states, is small, when every corner grocery can sell the stuff.

Gambling, corporate though it sometimes is, seems not to shed its ganster connections just because it's legal. Turn over the rock, and you'll see the creatures scurrying to and fro.

Because it would take a nationwide revival of some kind to reduce or eliminate legalized gambling, this set of thoughts is mere rumination rather than a policy proposal. But it's part of the human tragicomedy, and so worth thinking about. Becker and Posner, where are you?

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