LEO MORRIS: Government’s ‘behavioral missionary’ twist on morality
Acey deucy is a simple card game in which everybody antes, then each player takes a turn betting whether the next card will fall between the two cards he already has. Players can wager anything from nothing to the total of the pot, which can grow in a hurry. One time in the Army, in a game with other bored soldiers, I won $700 in the space of half an hour, then lost $1,000 in the next 15 minutes.
I was being a damn fool. So was everybody else in the game. But that was OK. We were young and in a place where there was nothing particular to spend our money on. Our foolishness hurt no one but ourselves.
We have the right to be damn fools and be left alone most of the time to find our own way back to common sense, if not wisdom. That’s the libertarian idea of freedom, at any rate.
We realize, however, that we’re not always going to be left alone. Governments throughout history have been full of behavior missionaries determined to save us from our worst instincts. Convinced that the common good cannot survive individual acts of defiant deviance, their goal is to strip us of all bad habits, however they can.
If we smoke, they will keep piling on the sin tax, the U.S. government’s preferred way to profit from vice since Alexander Hamilton paid off Revolutionary War debts with one on whiskey.
If we drink, they will make it hard for us to get alcohol, restricting where, when and under what conditions alcohol can be sold.
They will require us to wear seat belts, even when we’re alone in the car on a deserted road at 2 a.m. They will eliminate 32-oz. soft drinks in the hope we are too dimwitted to buy two 16-ouncers.
And they will create an atmosphere in which everything must have a label. “If you cannot understand, or cannot read, all directions, cautions and warnings,” says one, “do not use this product.”
This is all irritating to the true libertarian who wants government to protect him from others, not himself. But it is marginally tolerable as long as the government is seen as well-intentioned and truly has the greater good as its prime motivation.
As long as it speaks from the moral high ground, in other words.
Indiana enthusiastically leaped from the moral high ground on Oct. 13, 1989. That’s the date when the Hoosier Lottery began operations. And then it crawled off into the moral swamp on June 30, 1993. That’s when the General Assembly approved riverboat gambling in the state.
Gambling is a human weakness, like smoking and drinking. When government detects a weakness in us, we might prefer that it just leave us be. But we can accept that at times it will try to educate or cajole us into better behavior, or at times even bring out the sticks of punishment. What it must not do — what we should not permit it to do — is exploit that weakness and prey upon the citizens suffering from it.
That’s exactly what the state is doing with gambling, and it seems almost pointless at this late date to urge it to mend its ways. In fiscal year 2015, the state’s fee and tax revenue from all gambling sources — the lottery, the riverboats, the racinos, charitable gaming — was in excess of $900 million. To give up that much revenue would require huge spending cuts or unpalatable increases in more honest forms of taxation.
But times are tough. Adjacent states are busily expanding their own gambling infrastructures, and every new gaming venture the state approves merely siphons off some of the loose gaming change left in Hoosier pockets. Also in Fiscal Year 2015, the state’s revenues from gambling were down 21 percent from their peak in 2007.
So the state sinks itself deeper into the swamp, with the moral high ground farther and farther from view.
When riverboats were first approved, Indiana didn’t want that awful gambling on precious Hoosier soil, so the boats had to be actually navigating the water while the betting was taking place. That game of “let’s pretend” has been weakening ever since. First, boats could permit gambling while docked, but they still had to be navigable. Then the requirement to be navigable was dropped. Now, the casinos have sought and been granted permission to relocate to land-based sites. One imagines that whatever they ask for next will also be granted.
And the lottery? The state must keep pressuring us to keep shelling out the money. While I was researching this article, an ad I couldn’t kill kept popping up on Google every few minutes — from the Hoosier Lottery, shilling for its new Black Pearl scratch-off game. The state could have urged me to vote, or drive the speed limit, or not litter. Instead, it begged me to enter a “whole new world of playing” in which, for the low, low price of $5, I could win up to $20,000 instantly or $100,000 in a nightly drawing.
I’ll remember that when the state presumes to lecture me on how I should help it fight the terrible opioid crisis now stalking Indiana. I may be a damn fool, but I know who my friends are. We may not be on the moral high ground, but at least we remember where it is.
Leo Morris is a columnist for The Indiana Policy Review and the former opinion editor of the News-Sentinel.