My close friend emailed me this quote from the Alabama Baptist editor Bob Terry:
While some forms of gambling have already been legalized in the state, there is no question that gambling violates the principles of God’s Word. One cannot “love your neighbor as yourself,” a commandment of our Lord, when one covets the neighbor’s money and property. Gambling is trying to take something that belongs to another without exchanging something of equal value. Gambling appeals to the basest desires of humanity, not to the nobler characteristics advocated by Jesus.
The emphasized text above is the thesis of his argument and he’s totally mistaken. He’s wrong because he misunderstands the nature of value. A proper understanding of value is key to understanding much of what humans do on a daily basis. Especially within the realm of economics. Mr. Terry’s argument either assumes that everything has a fixed, objective value, or it denies that anything non-physical can be valuable. These are both wrong. Taking the last one first, there is obviously no reason to think that non-physical things have no value. When you go on vacation you don’t go to the beach in order to be on sand and get wet. You go in order to “relax.” That is not a quantifiable thing. It’s a subjective experience. I, personally, don’t like going on beach vacations as much as I like mountain vacations. The latter is more relaxing to me than the former. Therefore, I would gladly pay more for a mountain getaway than a trip to the beach. Many people feel just the opposite. They would value a beach trip far more, because the subjective value of the relaxation experience it brings is higher to them.
So, now this gets to the main point. Value is subjective. Let me repeat myself. Value is subjective. That can’t be stressed enough. Let me give you an example. I just bought a trailer today for $450. I have a motorcycle and it’s broken down for various reasons about 4 times over the past 2 years that I’ve had it. Each time it has a problem it leaves me stranded on the road side or in a parking lot somewhere and I have to make arrangements to borrow someone’s trailer or have it somehow transported back to my house or to the dealer. Well, it broke down on me again Friday night. Saturday morning I borrowed my bro-in-law’s trailer and truck and went to pick it up out of the parking lot I was forced to leave it in. After I got it back to the house I was so fed up with all the hassle that I found a trailer in the classifieds and bought it. Before today, a trailer wasn’t worth $450 to me. I valued having the $450 dollars more than I valued having a trailer. Today, that changed. Today I value having a trailer more than I value having the money. So I made a trade. I gave him $450 and he gave me a trailer. The trailer didn’t all of the sudden become worth more. It was my subjective valuation of the trailer that changed. This is the true nature of value.
Now, relating this subjective theory of value to gambling it should become very clear why Bob Terry is wrong. It can be said this way: people make trades when they value what they are getting more than the thing they are giving up. What a gambler is purchasing is the possibility of a windfall. And there is nothing wrong with that. In fact, most people do it every day. I would wager Mr. Terry does as well. It’s called investing in the stock market. If you have an IRA or a 401(k), you are buying the possibility of gaining more money. And you can’t say that it’s different because it’s less risky. Tell that to the people, like me, who lost 40% or more of their IRA’s when the markets crashed last year. When you put money in an investment, what you have decided is that you value the potential of more money more than you value the immediacy of the money you are investing. I don’t see how this is debatable. So, it’s not possible for him to make the claim that gambling doesn’t return “something of equal value.” He might not value it, but the people who invested in the gambling venture did, or else by default they wouldn’t have done it.
My buddy had a good analysis:
Look I am not a gambling supporter by any stretch of the imagination. My good Lord also knows that the last time I smelled air filtered cig. rooms and noisy machines I hoped it would be my last. However, [Terry’s argument] seems to be a pretty weak if not fully thought out position. What is equal value here? Could you not turn around and say its entertainment and the exchange is money for excitement or pleasure. In this regard six flags and disney world’s exchange for your cash is set by the consumer. If he wants to spend his money for the thrill of a ride then its up to him to decide if the price is worth the value of the pleasure. We can talk about the ethics of it all day long, but this argument seems a little out of touch.
That sums it up very nicely I think. So does all this mean that I’m pro-gambling? No. I’m not “pro-gambling” in the same way that I’m not “pro-sending mail”, or “pro-plugging in the toaster.” To me it’s just something that people do. I personally don’t like gambling for a variety of different reasons. Firstly, I’m a very risk averse person. Taking a lot of risk makes me uncomfortable and isn’t fun. Secondly, I don’t like the atmosphere that gambling creates in most cases. I don’t like being in smoke filled rooms full of noisy slot machines. And, I think this is really what turns most Christians off to gambling. Bob goes down that road in his article:
Few question the corrupting nature of gambling. Recent experience speaks for itself: 17 legislators in South Carolina guilty of accepting bribes from gamblers, 15 legislators in Kentucky guilty of similar offenses, more than 10 legislators in Louisiana investigated on bribery charges, the speaker of the House of Representatives in both Missouri and Florida involved in deals with gambling companies and the former governor of Louisiana convicted of extortion related to gamblers.
Testifying before the National Gambling Impact Study Commission, former Illinois Sen. Paul Simon said gambling “has more of a history of corruption than any other industry” and experience proves him true.
I would definitely question the claim that gambling “has more of a history of corruption than any other industry.” That crown most definitely goes to the profession of politics. It’s convenient how Senator Simon side-stepped that one. But, overall it is legit for Terry and others to be concerned about the corrupt and deginerate environment that gambling creates. I mostly agree. If he’s concerned about gambling producing a negative impact on a neighborhood or town that’s fine, but others might point to things like the Kentucky Derby as a counter-argument that all gambling doesn’t produce that. Then we would have a straight debate on it’s merits. But, let’s just remember that, that is what we’re talking about, instead of trying to make some philosophical argument based on value or couch gambling as some type of sin. If it’s a sin then so is investing in a retirement plan and that’s silly talk.