If you ever debate marijuana policy, you will hear this sentence: “We ought to legalize it and tax it!” Whenever I hear that sentiment, I always think: “I’m with you . . . halfway.” I do not want to tax marijuana, and not only because I object to taxes. Drug dealing is a distasteful business, and I do not want my government involved in it, no more than I would want my government, in the event that prostitution were legalized, to act as a pimp. And that is the problem with two bills that would legalize gambling in Texas: They do not merely allow Texans to wager on a game of blackjack — they make government the dealer.
My libertarian friends too often fail to make the distinction, as is the case with the Republican Liberty Caucus of Texas, which supports gambling legalization. It is one thing to support in principle the rights of individuals to entertain themselves as they see fit, including by spending hours in front of a Sex and the City–themed video slot machine. (Seriously: That exists.) A proper gambling-legalization bill would contain one sentence: “The laws against operating a gambling establishment are hereby repealed.” The two bills under consideration in Texas are anything but that. They are not exercises in letting people make their own decisions through the free market, because they do not establish free markets. Rather, Texas proposes to do the same thing that practically every state that allows casino gambling has done: create a government-enforced gambling cartel.
The Texas legislature is pleasingly candid about its intentions. The description of the first bill reads: “Proposing a constitutional amendment providing immediate additional revenue for the state budget by creating the Texas Gaming Commission, and authorizing and regulating the operation of casino games and slot machines by a limited number of licensed operators and certain Indian tribes.” The description of the second bill reads: “Proposing a constitutional amendment authorizing a state video lottery system to operate video lottery games at certain horse and greyhound racetracks and providing that federally recognized Indian tribes are not prohibited from conducting games of chance on certain Indian lands.” Words and phrases such as “immediate additional revenue for the state,” “commission,” “authorizing and regulating,” “limited number of licensed operators,” “state system,” and “federally recognized” should set off a whole Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?’s worth of angst and horrorwhen they coming thudding down upon liberty-loving ears.
Part of the legalization argument is that Texans already are going to neighboring states to gamble, and that Texas would do well to capture that economic activity and tax revenue for itself. It is true that Texans frequently travel to gamble in neighboring states such as Oklahoma. Oklahoma’s charms are modest — it is the only state we ever tried to give back to the Indians — but gambling is a powerful draw. Precisely how much economic benefit Oklahoma derives from playing host to Lone Star keno enthusiasts is difficult to calculate, and the total impact may not even be positive. Gaming interests in Pennsylvania made much the same argument regarding Atlantic City: Why send all that money to Borgata when we could build a real classy gambling joint at Valley Forge? (Seriously: That exists.) But it has been estimated that Atlantic City, a genuine gambling mecca, in the end loses money on its gaming industry once all the costs are accounted for. Those costs now include the support that Governor Chris Christie unwisely sunk into Revel, the shiny new flagship casino that promptly went bankrupt.
But assume, for the sake of argument, that gambling has a large positive impact on Oklahoma, and that Texas could claim some of that for its own by permitting casinos. It is possible to make a principled libertarian argument for the legalization of hard drugs and prostitution — I myself favor such legalization. But if I were living in Texas while crack and hookers were legal in Oklahoma, I would not argue that Texas owes it to its taxpayers to get a piece of that hot, hot, hot crack-and-hooker money currently moseying over the border to Muskogee. Still less would one be tempted to call for the creation of a Texas Whorehouse Commission and a Texas Crackhouse Commission to oversee state-sanctioned prostitution and drug dealing in Lamesa and Lampasas. Some things should be kept at arm’s length, both from polite society and, especially, from the organs of government, which are so easily corrupted. We can legalize, but legalize regretfully.
To be reminded of this is one of the reasons libertarians need conservatives. Perhaps that is a good definition of conservative: a libertarian with regrets. One of my favorite Bill Buckley moments is his debate with the Reverend Jesse Jackson on the subject of drug legalization. (WFB pro, JJ con.) WFB argued that we must “emancipate ourselves from the superstition that that which is legal is necessarily honorable. My old friend Mr. Jackson seems to believe that. It’s perfectly legal to contract syphilis, but that doesn’t mean that society is in favor of syphilis.” And then he added, with perfect imperturbability, “In fact, it’s perfectly legal to vote for Jesse Jackson — that doesn’t make it reputable, does it?” The Reverend Jackson did not much care for having his political career compared to a social disease, though personally I think the French disease suffered by the comparison.
The Texas legislature may make gambling legal, but it has no power to make it respectable. That may not persuade the libertarians, but they should appreciate that there is no libertarian option on the table, because the actual question before Texans is not whether to get government out of gambling but whether to get government more deeply into it.
— Kevin D. Williamson is National Review’s roving correspondent. His newest book, The End Is Near and It’s Going to Be Awesome, will be published in May.