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The Gambling Question

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My state of Florida, like many other states, is facing a budget shortfall. Although our new Republican governor, Rick Scott, maintains that the budget gap is “nothing” compared with other large states, $3.6 billion is still a lot of money.

Although some states are turning to tax increases to make up their budget deficits — like Illinois, which just raised personal income tax rates by 66 percent — Florida, like only a handful of other states, has no personal income tax.

Florida, like some other states, is now asking the gambling question.

On the table in the Florida legislature is a major gaming expansion to help close the state’s budget gap. Florida state senator Dennis Jones said he would “introduce legislation that would allow up to five casino resorts in various locations across the state.” Governor Scott, who recently stopped in Las Vegas to meet with officials from a casino corporation on his way to a meeting of Republican governors in San Diego, said he is “open to casino proposals.”

By state law, gambling is only permitted in Florida on Indian reservations, offshore cruises, and in pari-mutuel facilities. Betting on horse racing was legalized in Florida in 1931, followed by the more popular greyhound dog racing. Betting is also allowed on jai-alai, an extremely fast-paced game similar to racquetball but played on a three-walled court called a fronton by players with wicker basket devices attached to their right arms. Slot machines and poker tables can also be found at some pari-mutuel facilities. Offshore cruises must sail at least three miles from the coast into international waters before gambling operations can commence. The Seminole Indian tribe was permitted to offer high-stakes gambling when they opened a bingo hall in Hollywood, Florida, in 1979. There are currently seven Seminole casinos operating in Florida. The Miccosukee Indian tribe also operates a casino in Miami.

The problem with expanding gaming in Florida is four fold. As expected, some religious groups are opposed to expanded gaming operations because they are opposed to current gaming operations. Some in the pari-mutuel and casino industries are opposed because they see more gambling options as cutting into their business. There is also opposition from the family-friendly tourism industry, including the largest tourism magnet in Florida, Disney World. The other concern about gambling expansion is the agreement that the state of Florida recently made with the Seminole Indian tribe that guarantees the state $1 billion over five years. Legalizing other casinos would mean breaking the contract with the Seminoles and losing the money from the Seminole casinos.

It is obvious that any gambling that takes place in the state of Florida must be first approved by the state legislature. The state of Florida only allows gambling to take place when it can get a cut of the action. Private gambling not done under the regulatory eye of the state is illegal in any form according to Florida statutes, chapter 849, except for certain bingo games (s. 849.0931) and charity drawings (s. 849.0935).

It is a criminal act to maintain a gambling house:

Whoever by herself or himself, her or his servant, clerk or agent, or in any other manner has, keeps, exercises or maintains a gaming table or room, or gaming implements or apparatus, or house, booth, tent, shelter or other place for the purpose of gaming or gambling or in any place of which she or he may directly or indirectly have charge, control or management, either exclusively or with others, procures, suffers or permits any person to play for money or other valuable thing at any game whatever, whether heretofore prohibited or not, shall be guilty of a felony of the third degree, punishable as provided in s. 775.082, s. 775.083, or s. 775.084 (s. 849.01).

It is a criminal act to bet on the result of a contest of skill:

Whoever stakes, bets or wagers any money or other thing of value upon the result of any trial or contest of skill, speed or power or endurance of human or beast, or whoever receives in any manner whatsoever any money or other thing of value staked, bet or wagered, or offered for the purpose of being staked, bet or wagered, by or for any other person upon any such result, or whoever knowingly becomes the custodian or depositary of any money or other thing of value so staked, bet, or wagered upon any such result, or whoever aids, or assists, or abets in any manner in any of such acts all of which are hereby forbidden, shall be guilty of a misdemeanor of the second degree, punishable as provided in s. 775.082 or s. 775.083 (s. 849.14).

The only exception is for a bowling tournament (s. 849.141).

It is a criminal act to gamble:

Whoever plays or engages in any game at cards, keno, roulette, faro or other game of chance, at any place, by any device whatever, for money or other thing of value, shall be guilty of a misdemeanor of the second degree, punishable as provided in s. 775.082 or s. 775.083 (s. 849.08).

The only exception is for a penny-ante game of “poker, pinochle, bridge, rummy, canasta, hearts, dominoes, or mah-jongg in which the winnings of any player in a single round, hand, or game do not exceed $10 in value” (s. 849.085, 2, a) Provided, of course, that the game is conducted in a dwelling, that no one receives a commission for allowing the game in his dwelling, that admission to the game is not charged, that no advertising of the game is done, and that no one playing the game is under 18 (s. 849.085, 3, a-e).

It is a criminal act to posses any gambling device:

It shall be unlawful for any person to manufacture, sell, transport, offer for sale, purchase, own, or have in his or her possession any roulette wheel or table, faro layout, crap table or layout, chemin de fer table or layout, chuck-a-luck wheel, bird cage such as used for gambling, bolita balls, chips with house markings, or any other device, implement, apparatus, or paraphernalia ordinarily or commonly used or designed to be used in the operation of gambling houses or establishments, excepting ordinary dice and playing cards (s. 849.231).

And according to statute 849.232, there is no right of property in any gambling device. Anything seized will be destroyed after used as evidence against you.

And just in case you thought that chapter 849 of the Florida statutes was unnecessary, the last paragraph in the chapter is for you:

It is deemed by the Legislature that this chapter is necessary for the more efficient and proper enforcement of the statutes and laws of this state prohibiting lotteries and gambling, and a lawful exercise of the police power of the state for the protection of the public welfare, health, safety and morals of the people of the state. All the provisions of this chapter shall be liberally construed for the accomplishment of these purposes (s. 849.46).

So, the state of Florida has set itself up as a protector of the morals of Floridians. But if gambling is a vice, as most people in Florida — including gamblers — would acknowledge, then why does the state allow it at all? If gambling is immoral then it is immoral. Whether it is done in a state-approved and state-regulated gambling facility or done in secret in the privacy of one’s home is irrelevant. And if the state thinks it needs to monitor gambling activities to protect people’s morals then why does it levy a special tax on income from these activities? On the one hand, the state tries to discourage gambling, but on the other hand wants people to gamble so it can get revenue for its coffers.

And what about other vices? Here we see how inconsistent the state is. Prostitution and drugs are forbidden under any circumstances, and although alcohol and tobacco sellers are subject to strict regulations, consumers can purchase booze and cigarettes in any quantity and drink themselves knock down dead drunk in their home and smoke until they get cancer — and invite all their neighbors to join them and do likewise. They just better not dare set up a blackjack table in their living room while they are doing it.

But not only does the state of Florida sanction and regulate gambling, it has operated its own gambling racket — the Florida Lottery — since 1988, with odds far worse than blackjack or poker. Yet, according to the same Florida statutes, chapter 849, it is unlawful for any person in the state of Florida to set up a lottery, dispose of property by a lottery, conduct any lottery drawing, assist in conducting a lottery, attempt to operate, conduct, or advertise a lottery, possess any lottery implement, sell or offer for sale any lottery ticket, possess any lottery ticket, assist in the sale of a lottery ticket, possess any lottery advertisement, or possess any “papers, records, instruments, or paraphernalia designed for use, either directly or indirectly, in, or in connection with, the violation of the laws of this state prohibiting lotteries” (s. 849.09, 1, a-k) — unless, of course, he works for the Florida Lottery or buys a Florida Lottery ticket.

So, what about the gambling question? Should the state of Florida legalize more gambling options and tax them to help close the state’s budget gap? Absolutely not. More forms of gambling should not be legalized just because doing so will help prevent a budget shortfall, because doing so will provide extra money for education, or because doing so will allow the state to regulate gambling in such a way as to protect “the public welfare, health, safety and morals of the people of the state.” The state of Florida — and every other state — should legalize gambling simply because this activity should have never been criminalized in the first place. And the states should not just legalize more forms of gambling, but all forms of gambling, and for the same reason.

This does not mean that I’m a gambler (I’m not), that some people don’t have a gambling problem (some do), or that some people won’t blow their whole paycheck on lottery tickets or at a casino to the neglect of their families (some will).

The simple fact is, some people already gamble, some people already have a gambling problem, and some people already blow their whole paycheck on lottery tickets or at a casino to the neglect of their families. They always have and they always will, whether gambling is legal or illegal, regulated or unregulated, or treated as a vice or a crime.

The same is also true of using drugs, frequenting prostitutes, abusing alcohol, and smoking oneself to death.

There are four reasons why the state should not be involved in the gambling question: the nature of government, the nature of vice, the nature of man, and the nature of liberty.

First, it is simply not the business of government to prohibit people from engaging in immoral activities. It is in fact a perversion of government to do so. The purpose of government is supposed to be for the protection of life, liberty, and property from the violence or fraud of others. The government should not be concerned with banning or regulating any activity that takes place between consenting adults. It is a grave mistake to look to the state to enforce morality. A government with the power to outlaw an immoral practice is a government with the power to outlaw any practice.

The second reason is that vices are not crimes. As the 19th-century classical-liberal political philosopher Lysander Spooner explained it:

Vices are those acts by which a man harms himself or his property. Crimes are those acts by which one man harms the person or property of another. Vices are simply the errors which a man makes in his search after his own happiness. Unlike crimes, they imply no malice toward others, and no interference with their persons or property.

Unless this clear distinction between vices and crimes be made and recognized by the laws, there can be on earth no such thing as individual right, liberty, or property — no such things as the right of one man to the control of his own person and property, and the corresponding and coequal rights of another man to the control of his own person and property.

Third, legislation will never change human nature. The decision to gamble or not to gamble should be an individual decision, made on the basis of culture, morals, religion, family, risk aversion, financial status, or any other reason. The government should have nothing to do with it.
And finally, true liberty means liberty for everyone, even those who engage in practices that others in society find immoral or offensive. Why do some people want to use the force of the state to commit violence against others for engaging in peaceful, voluntary activity? “The only freedom which deserves the name,” said political philosopher John Stuart Mill, “is that of pursuing our own good in our own way, so long as we do not attempt to deprive others of theirs, or impede their efforts to obtain it.” “A free man,” said economist Ludwig von Mises, “must be able to endure it when his fellow men act and live otherwise than he considers proper.” Individuals, society, and the government — they should all be willing to tolerate, in the immortal words of Leonard Read, “anything that’s peaceful.”

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