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The morality of gambling

In May I am heading off to Las Vegas, where I am speaking at FreedomFest, the year’s big libertarian event. Booking tickets today, and looking at lots of pictures of casinos, I was reminded of an article the Liberty Club published a couple of years ago about gambling, money and morals. The author, Conyers Davis, writes:

As I fought my way through the throngs of gamblers in Atlantic City, I could understand why Martin Luther reiterated the phrase that the love of money is ‘the root of all evil’. Never in my life have I seen people treat money in so desperate a manner. Gambling on unknown odds, hoping to exponentially increase their wealth as if by magic. It quickly became obvious that the gamblers in Atlantic City do not love or respect money, despite their obvious desire to have more of it. Indeed, they have fallen into a trap that allows it to dictate life’s terms to them. These gamblers see money as the answer to all their problems, yet cannot escape the fact that it has become the bane of their existence. Surely, money represents more than this greed of the gamblers. Despite the fallacies that these people attribute to power of money, a positive alternative does exist. Money is one of the greatest physical tools that man has produced and should be openly regarded as such.

As a libertarian, I obviously believe that gambling should be legal. Is it moral? Is there perhaps a difference, morally, between gambling for fun and gambling because of an addiction? Discuss.

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25 comments to The morality of gambling

  • Gambling is a tax that smart people impose on stupid people.

  • Amelia

    FreedomFest looks like fun. Paris is a nice casino.

  • toolkien

    Whether it’s moral or not depends on what else should have been done with the money instead, or at least will be measured by an outsider on that standard. It is this angle that has made it a matter of public policy in that a gambler may gamble away a child’s milk money, and if so, the child becomes a burden on the State and all of us. I wonder in which case, fun or addiction, was morality supposed to apply? If a person is addicted, presumably they are beyond their own will to control it so it bypasses their reasoning capability, while if it is for fun they are consciously entering into the action. Presumably if it is for fun, they are dealing with disposble income, and if the are addicted they are dealing with the rent money.

    At the risk of being oblique (having been chastised here once for that (and not putting in paragraphing which simply was an oversight as I tend to right without breaks then put them in later) money is simply a holding place, or stasis point, of the process of value judgement. We use our system of value judgements to produce, sell it in the market place, and we are given money, which is a representation of said work and value judgements. The money then is merely a measure of the possibilities we can do with it, still based on our value judgements. Value judgements roll up into it and back out of it, it just disconnects the two events. Risking money on pure chance apparently is invigorating for some people, just like speeding at 110 mph or sky-diving or any other activities which offer a rush of excitement. Merely because gambling involves money doesn’t make it any more or less moral since all have a possible downside to the excitement. All the actions involve value judgements which lead to action and its consequences. All can be judged as moral or immoral depending or circumstances. Would it be moral for a father of a two year old to sky dive and risk death?

  • Grant Gould

    If either party doesn’t value money linearly, gambling can be a rational and mutually beneficial thing. Ditto for people gambling for entertainment, or people playing a game like poker that’s just more fun and sociable with a bit of real money on the table. That alone should address the questions of its being universally blameworthy.

    That said, however, I doubt that anything like all gamblers do so because it’s rational. Depressingly many gamble out of a low-level addiction.

    Obviously walking into a potentially addictive pastime without taking any precautions is stupid and blameworthy. I’m from a family with a bit of addictive susceptability in the genome, so I don’t touch intoxicants. Gamblers really should think the same way, but not enough do. Worse, casinos seem more than willing to feed anything short of a full diagnosable case of gambling addiction. I’d argue that’s a nasty thing for casinos to do, but I understand why they do it and indeed may in some cases be morally obligated to do so.

    As for the gamblers, the substantial majority are clearly irresponsible (though casino gamblers less so than lotto gamblers!). It is definitely immoral for some people to be irresponsible — the parents of young children leap to mind. But the immorality of irresponsibility must depend on the nature of one’s responsibilities. I find it hard to put forth a blanked condemnation even of irresponsible gamblers. People without substantial responsibilities don’t really rise to the level of moral questions.

  • Gambling against “unknown odds” is foolish, but it what the state lottery depends on. Massachusetts runs the most profitable state lottery in the country and it’s not because they attract a lot of players who are aware off the payoff/odds ratio.

    Gambling against known odds, while never in the player’s favor can be a fun and yes, moral, activity so long as one doesn’t fall into the trap of gamling addiction. Therein lies the problem.

    Great site, BTW. Blogrolled you.


  • Noah Yetter

    First off, addiction is a choice. There, that’s done with. Moving on…

    Gambling qua gambling is amoral. It doesn’t affect anyone else against their will, and is therefore not properly the subject of moral reasoning.

    As other posters have pointed out, gambling only becomes a moral issue when the funds gambled had other uses that could be conceived of as “more important”, eg: the support of a child. But how is gambling different in this respect from any other recreational use of money? How is gambling away the milk money any more or less immoral than spending it on books, music, or power tools? Clearly then it is not gambling itself that is immoral but the failure to attend to one’s responsibilities that may result from foolishly losing all of one’s money.

  • Bernie Greene

    Gambling is a game where the stakes can be a lot higher, and therefore much more involving, than most other games people play.

    For it to really feel like a game the risks must be high enough to matter. We all have a different idea of how high that might be but the risk factor is a constant for there to be any appeal.

    Games like building a business empire or developing new products or other creative endeavours involve different elements to challenge us such as outsmarting the competition or winning new customers etc. These can be many times more involving than gambling and, as they don’t rely too much on risk, are more rational.

    Gambling is such an irrational game that many cultures have considered it immoral. I don’t consider it should be illegal but to my mind it is a slippery moral path to take.

  • Oscar

    Betting on the lottery is not a bet against unknown odds. I often put down a dollar on the lottery for the same reason some folks buy insurance. In both cases you spend some money to get a financially acceptable result in the case of the actual occurrence of a specified low probability event.

    I would agree that gambling CAN have moral implications depending on the ration of amount gambled to the gambler’s current and future requirements, and said gambler’s obligations.

  • Frank P

    Taking a chance on the unknown is a primaeval human trait; it is probably part of the reason we are all still here. Rather like the sexual urge, it is life force – necessary for survival of the species. But also like sex, when agents move in to capitalise on the urge it becomes a serious problem for humanity. The business of gambling, or gaming, as the gambling tsars euphemistically label it, is hardly ever a gamble for those who control the business. In fact if they organise their business efficiently, as most of them do, it is a rigged business in which, in the long run, the punter cannot win, only the ‘house’. In all countries where gambling is legal, the governments collude with the gambling business and allow them to rig the odds in return for a gaming levy – a cut of the profits. And that’s aside from cheating.

    The Gambling industry is the life blood of Organized Crime, always has been and always will be. The commercial sex industry is another staple income for Organized Crime (OC). They operate hand in hand. It has become even more insidious since the explosion in drug abuse. The casino industry is also a gigantic laundry for proceeds of other crime. And for insider trading and share shuffling in bogus hostile take overs and insider dealing. And shylocks are part of the set-up, because credit betting leads to serious debt, which can only be collected ultimately by coercion. Though there has been a purported shift of ownership of casinos from Cosa Nostra to ‘corporate America’ – an alleged cleansing of the industry – hidden Mafia interest still abounds throughout the industry.

    Las Vegas was once the fundamental orifice of Capitalism in America; then suddenly there were two a-holes, when New Jersey legislators decided that their State should join the club and built the new ‘strip’ in Atlantic City in the late 1970s. Now there are colostomy bags of one sort or another in most States.

    Gambling itself is not necessary immoral, it depends on the circumstances of the wagering and those involved -as Grant Gould, Toolkien et al. assert in their above posts. But the business of gambling is organised theft by trickery and the whole panoply of devices to excite the senses, dull reason and disguise the scam, particularly within casino industry, is a multi-billion dollar rip-off legalised by government. I presume that even Samizdatistas would consider that immoral.

    When the gaming laws of the UK were first enacted to allow legal gambling in 1960 – 1963, few people realised that it was precipitated by lobbying
    organised by Meyer Lansky, at one time the most successful organiser of mob gambling; Not, as suggested at the time, by local pressure to loosen laws to accomodate church fete lottieries, small stakes betting on cards and dominoes in pubs, etc. and to legalise horse betting which was then legally only for the rich through Turf Accountants. Criminal street bookmakers organised illegal betting for the hoi polloi prior to 1960.

    But the real reason for legalising it was to allow the Mob to get a foothold in the UK, which they promptly did. Meyer Lansky, the ‘Mogul of the Mob’ came to London with a whole bevy of mobsters: Angelo Bruno the Philadelpia Don and several of his henchmen; Sam Giancana the boss of Chicago were among them. Lansky installed Dino Cellini the “Stubensville Mechanic” in London to run a croupier school. An astute corrupter, Lansky straightened out top cops at the Yard and politicians and OC took off in the UK. That was immoral.

    I won’t bore you with what transpired from then on, but briefly a new Gaming Act had to be introduced in the UK in the 1968s after Roy Jenkins the Labour Home Secretary was apprised by J Edgar Hoover of the influx of Mobsters to the UK. Nobody from the Met. Police had told him. He went apeshit. The Gaming Board for Great Britain was inaugurated and for a while checks and balances were successful, particularly after the Mobster were ‘gated’ from the UK. But that did not stop the cancer of corruption that had started with Lansky’s incursion. IMHO, though I am now out of the loop, the recent proposals for loosening the gaming laws should be scrutinsed very closely by the investigative press (if such a thing still exists). The new proposals have the stench of the Sixties about them. The National Lottery was just the start and the scandal at the outset of that proposal was never fully investigated. As with most vices, gambling in moderation and with agents taking a cut, is harmless enough. But it inevitably leads to exploitation, crime and corruption.

    Last time I went to Atlantic City an urge to versify came over me:

    Atlantic City

    The mutant calf of a old Jersey Cow:
    A mountain of glitz and concrete, now.
    A city of sin; a tower of Babel;
    The stuff of broken dreams; a fable.

    In temples of greed and raw ambition
    The weak are wrecked by cruel attrition.
    The Boardwalk carries a sad parade:
    The final march of the Old Brigade.

    O please God grant them sweet relief
    From shaking hands with the one-armed thief
    Who smiles and winks ‘neath portals grand
    Then steals their purse with his missing hand.

    Its sad that such a worthy nation
    Brooks such cunning exploitation
    Disguised as harmless entertainment:
    A temptress dressed in fairground raiment.

    But some would demur, in strident voice,
    “The suckers all have their sovereign choice.
    Most can afford to chance their luck –
    And the rap sheets out on Lady Luck”.

    Good luck in Las Vegas. But you’ll need more than luck if you gamble there,

  • Tony

    Your right to criticize my addictions ends where my fulfillment of my contractual obligations to you begins.

  • Frank P

    My apologies, in the penultimate line of the above post, before the doggerel, please amend ‘ gambling in moderation and with agents taking a cut’ to ‘gambling in moderation and no agents taking a cut’ …

  • Eric

    I grew up next door to Atlantic City, and I’m not sure if the author of the article was visiting the same town that I know. The majority of the gamblers that I’ve seen in AC’s casinos are either:

    a) Half-senile seniors looking for a temporary escape from the daily humdrum of their increasingly depressing lives

    b) Vapid middle-class Baby Boomers looking for more or less the same thing. Only they might prefer the tables over the slot machines, and spend some time on the beach as well.

    There are certainly some compulsive gamblers/addicts in the mix, and some naive fools who honestly head down the Expressway thinking that they’re going strike it rich, but I don’t hesitate to say that aforementioned two demographic groups easily outnumber the others.

    But I do think there is a lesson for libertarians to learn from Atlantic City’s general crappiness relative to Las Vegas: If you’re going to turn a lifeless wasteland of a city into a gambling town, don’t let the government call the shots. Let the mafia do it instead.

  • Julian Morrison

    I don’t agree that the business of gambling is immoral because of the “house percentage”. While the net money flow is towards the casino owner, the customers get what they’re paying for – an experience, a game, and a genuine chance to win big – and it’s precisely the casino’s profit which makes it all possible. Nobody would open a casino if the odds were forced to 50/50.

  • Frank P



    ‘If you’re going to turn a lifeless wasteland of a city into a gambling town, don’t let the government call the shots. Let the mafia do it instead.’

    I’m surprised that a resident of New Jersey hadn’t twigged yet that the Mafia and the Government are one and the same in the Garden State. When Brendan Byrne stood up in the late 70s and yelled, supposedly to his mob friends, “Keep your filthy hands of Atlantic City” I could hear from this side of the Atlantic the derisive gufffaws of the cognoscenti that filled the State and probably the whole danged USA. I’m still not sure whether Angelo Bruno, and his New York Associates didn’t hear him, or whether they actually told him to say it to put the minds of credulous residents such as yourself to rest.

    Whatever, before very long Angelo himself and subsequently literally scores more were murdered in the internecine warfare that followed in the clamber to gain control of the casinos themselves and the subsidiary rackets that feed off the activity, including the illicit narcotics industry.

    ‘ Half-senile seniors looking for a temporary escape from the daily humdrum of their increasingly depressing lives’

    I think I covered that above in my little rhyming response. To walk around the acres of one armed bandits watching dead-eyed geriatric punters, (bussed in and bust out) wanking away their hard earned pensions was a sight I had hoped we would never see in the UK. Watch this space as things develop here in this ‘harmless’ gambling industry.

    And when I went back to AC a year last year I saw little of the regeneration that was promised by the ‘politicians’ when they changed the law to legalise gambling in the State in the 70s. The Boardwalk still glitters, but behind the facades the same old ghettos and hell-holes. No regeneration – just further degeneration. The meretricious front and glitter have blinded you to the facts that lie behind.

    Julian M

    ‘and it’s precisely the casino’s profit which makes it all possible. Nobody would open a casino if the odds were forced to 50/50.’

    Quite! It’s the ‘makes it all possible’ (like crime corruption and degredation) that I was trying to describe – obviously not very successfully.

    Liberty minus responsibility and honesty equals vicious crime and political corruption. Atlantic City is the shining example of Mammon at its worst. Therein lies the immorality, or worse, the amorality.

    The Gambling industry doesn’t need you support and worries not about my disapproval, nor the considerable efforts I once made to curtail their worst excesses on both sides of the Atlantic. They have got it made and therefore have the wherewithal to demand whatever they need. That, as I said is where gambling itself becomes immoral – when one of the players in the gamble always wins because the game is rigged. As for harmless entertainment? I won’t refer you to the bibliography, the explosion, of recent factual tomes of Mob exploits over the last 100 years or so. Just read a book by a man called Wallace Turner entitled “Gambler’s Money” published circa half a century ago.

  • Frank P


    As a postscript, perhaps the books by Ovid Demaris and Hank Messick would be good companion volumes as you assimilate ‘Gambler’s Money’. Principles are worthy, unfortunately we human beings tend to find the loopholes that almost always discredit them. In other words empirical experience always fucks up beautifully designed wish lists. If only human concepts weren’t launched from the shifting sands of human frailty we would all be in heaven now, rather than in this seething cesspit we all have to share pro tem.

  • Anointiata Delenda Est

    Didn’t somebody say ‘Freedom is untidy’? Didn’t somebody say ‘Let it Be’? Just roll the dice on Nature, Nurture. That’s where you’ll be. Just don’t lay it on everybody else.

  • Gambling is something that someone voluntarily engages in, so its a matter of personal choice. Those that are addicted are merely weak-willed. If they gamble away all their money it is not the fault of gambling but their own damn fault. No one forced them to go into a casino, get addicted and waste all their money.

    Is gambling a daft endeavor? Yes
    Is it amoral? No

    Its a case of cavaet emptor.

    BTW: I went to Las Vegas for a Young Republican conference. It is a shit-hole that is hot as hades. I never once gambled and left a day early.

  • toolkien

    But the business of gambling is organised theft by trickery and the whole panoply of devices to excite the senses, dull reason and disguise the scam, particularly within casino industry, is a multi-billion dollar rip-off legalised by government. I presume that even Samizdatistas would consider that immoral.

    Slippery slopes, slippery slopes.

    Wouldn’t the above statement apply to the Do Gooders in our midst when speaking of capitalism and profit in general? Isn’t advertising, not in the sense of a simple one panel advert in a newspaper, but in the billionth repetition of commercials on TV or radio or website pop-ups, the same thing (at least in the Do Gooder’s eyes)? Cartoons on cigarettes, clowns pushing fatty burgers, tits to sell beer. All for dirty profit. All playing on people’s desires and fears. But then the Government/Politicians do the same thing, “vote for us, give us power, or you’ll be eating dog food in a box”. Blinking lights, scantily clad waitresses, and the hopes to have a little extra jingle in your pocket is just as valid in this context.

    I think people rip on gambling simply because there in only a mental return for most, nothing tangible, so it’s easy to tear down. Governments and Statism couldn’t exist so easily if people weren’t so happy to have it trample over others’ value judgement systems and marginalize them. It makes walking off with 40-50% of their income in taxes so easy. The collective’s value judgement trump yours so shut up.

    A last concept, the reason organized crime is involved in gambling is because it is/was already illegal. Isn’t it funny how the people who gravitate to organized crime are those who engage in illegal activities? The mob was involved in liquor here in the US when it was banned. Are they now? They own the breweries and distilleries? Not that I’m aware of. If it’s illegal, the element will gravitate to it. Stripping the illegality from it, and straight business interests will take over. What happens to the contrarians then I don’t know. Perhaps they become roving bands of thieves.

  • Dave

    I agree with Andrew Ian Dodge, it’s a straight contract. You know what you are getting into. A more difficult moral point, might be lending money to people who are obviously bad at it to get them into debt.

    But for your money, sure.

    I must admit I like Blackjack – I’m not terribly good at it, but I can last a reasonable length of time before the house catches up with me, and I feel I’ve had my money’s worth.

  • Frank P


    A last concept, the reason organized crime is involved in gambling is because it is/was already illegal. Isn’t it funny how the people who gravitate to organized crime are those who engage in illegal activities? The mob was involved in liquor here in the US when it was banned. Are they now? They own the breweries and distilleries? Not that I’m aware of. If it’s illegal, the element will gravitate to it. Stripping the illegality from it, and straight business interests will take over. What happens to the contrarians then I don’t know. Perhaps they become roving bands of thieves.’

    The point that I’ve tried to make is, that on both sides of the Atlantic, gaming was made legal on behalf of Organised Crime, firstly to give them a legitimate front and secondly to enable them to use that legitimate front to hide other illicit activity and to launder the proceeds. Are the Mob in the distillery business? You can bet you sweet bibby, they are. Where do you think the profits from bootlegging were invested? They are in every business, particularly where the vices and ‘entertainment’ are involved.

    Jesus, the proceeds gave you one President over there and they whacked him when he didn’t do as he was told and tried to wage war on them through his brother. If your libertarian philosophy includes a pass for rampant official corruption and whacking the occasional disobedient President, I’m not sure I can renew my subscription.

    Casinos are flytraps for officialdom, that’s their main purpose: plush, lush and seductive. All the better to compromise you Chief Officer/Gaming Enforcement Operative/ Governor / Senator / President.

    The slippery slope that I worry about is that Organised Crime prospers exponentially as a sub rosa government and becomes more powerful than the elected Government. But I suppose, like Mussolini (their fiercest protagonist incidentally), they would make the trains run on time. And usually they only kill each other, even if the effect of their criminal enterprises does represent a tax of about 10% on American goods and services. But as you say, there only making a living.

    Just a few pointers to what happens when you give sharks a pass into public lidos in the name of libertarianism. But then some people like the smell of blood and crap and after all the victims didn’t have to go swimming, did they? But what if noboby told them that the sharks were there? After all some of the posters here seem unaware of the activity beneath the surface. And you’re all very bright sods who have the world sorted. Caveat emptor my ass! You wanna do away with all the laws on theft, fraud, extortion and murder? Libertarianism? Anarchic madness more like.

    As the first poster on this thread said, “Gambling is a tax imposed by the clever on the stupid.” I would add, sponsored by ther government who take a their cut and enjoy the comps that emanate from the industry. I think I agree, it’s neither immoral nor amoral, it’s just plain corruption, by anybody’s yardstick, or at least by anybody who believes in the betterment of humanity.

    If you only oppose government when it makes laws and not when it breaks laws, you’re going to reside in a weird world.

  • Shannon Love

    It’s an old observation that the moral problem with gambling is not that you might lose money but that you might win it.

    Gambling is unique as a form of entertainment in that you can actually profit from it. Gambling winnings result from no productive activity. Its windfall wealth, like an inheritance, and has a similarly corrosive effect on one’s productive behavior.

    One reason gambling was outlawed in much of the US is that in some sub-communities so many people were trying to make a living by gambling that it was causing economic disruptions. People stopped actually producing anything and instead just swapped poker chips back and forth.

  • Gambling corrupts by turning one’s attention away from productive, ennobling pursuits to dissipative ones. I can’t say I don’t mind, though. I’m still a slave to my own addictive tendencies.

    Not enough has been written about the masochistic urge of gamblers. I know that when I lose, I feel as if I’m doing penance for my sins. Better than church: I really do feel just – just awful! Total misery! Just one more reason to return to the casino!

    Currently I’m riding high. Lost $3,200 on New Year’s Day in Las Vegas, but I returned three weeks later to win $14,600, all at blackjack. Lost $2,500 shortly thereafter trying to recapture the success, but I nevertheless paid off my credit cards. But in a strange way, I still yearn for that sickening emptiness of the wallet. The lure of the dark side is that strong.

  • A parting comment: the quote by Conyers Davis shows that he only half-understands the problem. Of course, gamblers despise money. Why shouldn’t they: that terrible despot that holds sway over their own lives, and the lives of everyone else, for that matter? Gamblers haven’t fallen into a trap unawares, however: they are the only ones daring enough to try to escape the trap everyone else blindly putters on in. Let Conyers Davis wax on about money’s power: I want out!

  • Frank P

    Shannon Love

    Very interesting to read your respective perspectives.

    ‘It’s an old observation that the moral problem with gambling is not that you might lose money but that you might win it.’

    On a trivial note (though it did not seem trivial to me at the time) at school during WWII I bought a lottery ticket in a charity draw and won a bicycle. I was castigated by the Methodist pastor of the Youth Club I was attending who suggested that I return the bicycle as I had acquired it as a result of gambling and therefore I did not deserve to have it. It was the first time that I rebelled against ‘authority’ as I kept the bicycle anyway. But thereafter I never enjoyed using it, as deep down I think I agreed that I did not deserve it. When it was stolen a short time afterwards, a weight was lifted from my shoulders. Not sure where the moral of that little parable lies. But I wonder if it had something to do with the fervour with with I pursued the Gambling moguls of the mob during the productive years of my life. :-)

  • I also believe that gambling should be legal. It’s a kind of addiction but it’s not as dangerous as drugs. Moreover, people continue using drugs even though it’s forbidden.