If we learned anything in the United States from prohibition, it was that making something illegal doesn’t stop it from happening (and usually makes it worse). The history of gambling in the US is surely interesting and it’s something we still have to fight for til this day.
I think that when it comes to so-called “vices” in society, there’s always going to be someone arguing against them from a moral standpoint. That’s exactly what we saw in the 1930s in the days of prohibition. Huge numbers of people who argued against the legal sale of alcohol were primarily church goers who argued almost solely from a position of morality.
When they abuse it (or become full alcoholics), they can be violent and a drain on society.
So if we outlaw it, people will stop drinking! People who might have become alcoholics will be safe and protected from this evil scourge. Society as a whole will benefit.
This leaves out all the positive benefits of alcohol of course and assumes that the role of government is to protect people from themselves and restrict their freedoms, but honestly, that’s a bit beside the point here.
Here’s the real point—did it work? And would it work for gambling?
If you know anything about prohibition, you know that it didn’t.
First of all, we can thank prohibition for organized crime in this country. Sure, there was organized crime before to a degree, but they really struggled for funding. When alcohol, which was and is hugely profitable and popular, was suddenly made illegal, the demand didn’t disappear. If anything, it got worse.
There was profit to be made, but all legal alcohol producers were out of business. Some entrepreneurial criminals (who were already committing crimes anyway) say “Gee, we should sell this stuff! Beats the heck out of beating people up for money and robbing banks.”
And they did. And they made an enormous amount of money.
Drinking didn’t stop.
Were these men alcoholics? Certainly a handful may have been, but the vast majority were normal people like you and me.
They enjoyed their drinking, and they didn’t like being told what to do. That’s pretty much how you could describe the entire country.
You can apply the same line of thinking to any type of problem you name that’s been made illegal. Making gambling illegal will absolutely not stop gambling.
Instead, it will drive gambling underground.
And that’s where we start to run into problems.
1- People Are Going to Gamble Whether It’s Legal or Not
Just like people were going to drink during prohibition despite it being illegal, people are going to gamble no matter what.
I think where people get really tripped up on this issue is that, in their eyes (the prohibitionists), gambling is basically evil (obviously it’s not). But let’s look through their eyes. They see gambling as a sin, and they often see it on the same level as murder or theft. It’s wrong no matter how they look at it.
But for the average person, this is obviously flawed thinking. Murder and theft are crimes that have direct victims. It is impossible for me to steal something without there being a victim.
The same is not the case with gambling or drinking.
Now those who think it should be outlawed will argue that there are victims, that when someone gambles all their money away (which happens extremely rarely), that their families or friends are harmed. I certainly don’t deny that.
The difference is that those victims are not happening in every case. In fact, people become victims so rarely that you have to wonder if it’s really the gambling or alcohol that’s responsible at all. Something like 2.6% of people in the U.S. have a problem gambling. That means that over 97% of people who gamble do so just fine, without creating victims.
So these people think that because victims are marginally possible that the practice should be outlawed completely? That’s way different than theft or murder, which produces a victim in every case.
By that line of thinking, cars should be illegal. Most people don’t know someone who has a problem gambling (because it’s so rare), but almost everyone knows someone who has had their life changed because of a car wreck.
Then they might say, “Well cars serve a purpose! Gambling doesn’t. It’s just a bunch of games.” First of all, I would argue that games serve a hugely positive purpose in society, but let’s lay that aside for a moment. By this line of thinking, all sports should be illegal. Soccer can be dangerous. People drink too much at games. Sometimes there’s even stampedes.
Yet where are the advocates to shut down soccer entirely? They’re hard to find.
Gambling is absolutely a victimless crime. The people who are committing crimes who happen to also gamble are the ones responsible for the problems, not the gambling. If you take away the gambling, they’ll find some outlet for their problems.
So because gambling is a victimless act (just like drinking), people aren’t going to view it the same as theft or murder. They’re going to partake anyway because they just don’t feel bad about it (and they shouldn’t!).
Almost all adults can drink alcohol just fine and act responsibly. The same is true for gambling. Alcohol and gambling are not directly responsible for issues that problem gamblers or problem drinkers cause—the problem gamblers and problem drinkers are the problem.
2- Legalized Gambling Eliminates the Criminal Element (And Reduces It in Other Ways)
When prohibition took place back in the 1930s, alcohol began being created and distributed by criminals. No business could get away with it, and any that tried would have to have a large operation that would almost certainly get found out.
So what happened is that most alcohol was being produced by small numbers of people who had deep levels of trust with each other (or who operated completely alone). Their goal was to make money, and they did.
They weren’t exactly worried about health standards.
This led to a number of problems. When alcohol was legal, there were standards and rules as to how it was made. If a business was selling alcohol that was low quality or actually poisoning people, they’d quickly go out of business, so that became rare. In fact, the best way to make money was to produce high quality alcohol, so suppliers employed people who had a great deal of experience.
When everything moved underground, two things happened. One was that alcohol became suddenly much more valuable (because it was in high demand with a low supply). The other was that all the people who knew how to create great alcohol weren’t doing so because it was illegal.
High demand, high potential profit, and nobody around to make it who knew what they were doing.
Every criminal with even an inkling of how to produce alcohol now had a huge incentive to start producing the stuff. Many people died or went blind during prohibition because they drank low-quality alcohol.
That’s what happens when something victimless is made illegal—criminals take over, and they reduce quality and cause harm.
The exact same thing would happen with gambling were it made completely illegal. It already does happen in states where gambling is illegal.
However, because it’s illegal, it essentially has to be run by criminals. Casino owners and operators across the world are incredibly intelligent, high-functioning individuals who know how to run a business and value customer service. Land based or real money online casinos, just like any other product or service in the world, legal gambling is run at a high level of quality because business owners know quality leads to more money.
Underground gambling doesn’t have this same mindset. First of all, you’re dealing with criminals, so they’re not worried about quality really at all. Second, they have a hard-to-find product. They don’t need to have a high level of quality because they’re the only show in town.
Third, because they’re already criminals, they don’t mind bringing other criminal elements along with them. Illegal gambling can be dangerous for precisely this reason. Many of the people willing to set up something illegal like this may be violent people or have other criminal intentions. They might just rob you and take your money.
And what could you do about it? Call the police? Hardly.
Making gambling illegal makes the activity so much more dangerous. Gambling today in states where it’s legal is absolutely safe, fun, and of a high quality. The legality of it protects everyone and keeps the criminals occupied somewhere else.
I’ll admit that there could be a number of other reasons why gambling should be legal, but I think these are 2 of the best.
Overall, it’s time for lawmakers to dive into the reality that prohibiting gambling can do more bad than good.