Gambling being disallowed has had a long history in various parts of the world, and although a lot of people simply take this for granted and don’t question it very much, it’s actually quite ridiculous that this would ever be seen as a crime.
The fundamental goal of criminal law is to protect people from injury. So we have laws against things like murder and assault to protect us from physical injury, and we have laws regarding property rights to protect us from economic injury.
In addition, any act can be deemed a crime merely from the fact that laws have been written making it so. While a lot of criminal law is based upon principles, this is not required at all and laws can and often are created merely out of arbitrary political will.
While the human race has made extraordinary strides in fields like technology, the quality of our practical reasoning in many cases has not kept pace, and still suffer from being driven by various beliefs and emotions that leave us acting rather foolishly.
Mere disapproval, without any real cause, is plenty enough to marshal the force of law to ban and prohibit just about anything we please, and examples of this are still easy to find, and we have to look no further than anti gambling law to see this in full force.
We may still rightly ask whether or not such laws have any real merit, and political will is in itself not enough to justify anything really, as we can and should expect the law, especially criminal law, to be based upon sound justification, or at least one that could be reasonably argued.
Why is gambling illegal anyway? Well this is driven by the beliefs of certain people that gambling is a sin, and religious beliefs are really at the heart of this matter. We would expect this in certain Muslim countries, where there is no real separation between church and state, and the law in these places may indeed be driven by religion primarily, but isn’t the United States supposed to maintain a separation between church and state?
Sadly, the separation isn’t so clear, and religion does rear its ugly head in several matters of law, with gambling of course being one of them. Now it’s perfectly fine for people to harbor personal beliefs such as gambling being a sin, but these are just personal opinions, and when this spills over into criminal law, something has dreadfully gone wrong.
How Can This Happen?
Where does the power to make laws come from in a country such as the United States? Our law is fashioned by our elected representatives, at both the federal and state level, and criminal law is for the most part a state government function, although the federal government does get most of the attention.
In any case, these elected representatives can make any law they please, subject only to the provisions of the Constitution, which places limits on it. These officials may be influenced by things like popular opinion or the opinions of political donors, and the latter plays a more significant role in the political process than many think.
As long as these laws aren’t clearly unconstitutional, including violating provisions in the Bill of Rights, then there’s nothing really stopping our governments from making anything they please illegal.
Democratic power can be abused, which is the sole reason why the Bill of Rights was created, to protect several enumerated rights from political abuse. These include such things as freedom of religion, by way of the First Amendment.
However, freedom of religion under the First Amendment has been interpreted rather narrowly, and the practice of the religion which it protects isn’t seen to include freedom from having the beliefs of a certain religion being imposed upon you, and your being thrown into jail from not complying.
This is what anti gambling laws really come down to, gambling is believed to be a sin by many Americans, in spite of gambling being a clear exercise of personal liberty, spending one’s own money on a certain form of entertainment, a victimless crime as it is called. This is an absurd notion, as a victim is required for a legitimate crime to be committed, and having one’s particular religious beliefs offended does not come close to meeting this threshold.
Are We Making Any Progress With This?
Fortunately, gambling is making a very strong comeback in the United States of late, in spite of religion still playing a role in our criminal law. The old laws are still on the books, but they are being updated to take a more sensible and pragmatic approach, driven by more permissive attitudes towards gambling.
All but two states now have state lotteries, and as a matter of principle, if the state runs a lottery, they can no longer argue that gambling should be prohibited by virtue of it offending the public morals, which means it being seen as sinful by a large majority of the public.
So we’re moving much more toward regulation rather than prohibition now, where gambling is allowed under certain circumstances rather than just banned. Progress with this does differ by state, for instance in Utah gambling will not be tolerated in any form anytime soon, and Utah is the state that is driven by religious beliefs more than any other state in the country.
Religious leaders are not taking this sitting down of course, although the sway they have enjoyed for a long time is starting to wane. While it should never be the case that religious beliefs form law, especially criminal law, the will of the people is ultimately where the power of these laws derive from, and the will is thankfully changing more and more towards the better as time passes.