Politics & Policy

Viva Pennsylvania!

The argument that gambling destroys society is a load of craps.

The mechanized army of 61,000 one-armed bandits preparing to make its way into Pennsylvania at the behest of the governor and the state legislature is not, despite the rhetoric of anti-gambling naysayers, a harbinger of the Apocalypse. In truth, it may just be the salvation of much-burdened taxpayers. And if we are to have a welfare state, is it not morally sounder to fund it through persuasion rather than coercion?

Pennsylvania’s Democratic governor, Ed Rendell, signed a bill into law last Monday that legalized slot-machine gambling, which he promised will funnel $1 billion a year in tax relief for homeowners throughout the state. Within a couple of years the average middle-class family is expected to see its property-tax bill drop by 20 percent.

This is no endorsement of Rendell–a typical loudmouth, loves-being-on-television partisan Democrat if there ever was one. He actually gives Max Cleland a run for his money. But isn’t it refreshing to hear a Democrat talking about providing “much needed tax relief”?

Critics wailed that slot machines will lead to increased crime, addiction, bankruptcy, and divorce. But let’s be honest about the situation at hand. People who go to work everyday, putting in long hours and trying to do right by their families, are being punished with high property taxes because we as a society are petrified to allow adults to make their own decisions about whether to drop a quarter and pull a lever. There will undoubtedly be those folks who are irresponsible and fritter too much of their money away. But that is no reason to stick it to the legions of responsible citizens.

And what temptations should we be happy to see irresponsible people overindulge in? Cigarettes? Alcohol? Fast food? A person can always go to work and earn more quarters, but no one can earn themselves a new lung, liver, or heart. The price we pay for living in a free society is the onus of personal responsibility. Any restrictions on this are arbitrary, and anything arbitrary is, by nature, unjust.

To be blunt, at least a gambling addiction will contribute to education. Considering that an alcohol addiction keeps your local seedy bar open, the net negatives of gambling seem fairly low.

Politically, the gambling debate in Pennsylvania, as in most places, was an all too common case of keeping the other guy from doing anything he might be able to take credit for. Rendell had to run a gauntlet of Republicans to make the slot-machine bill a reality. In Maryland, Republican governor Robert Ehrlich Jr. is being blocked from legalizing slot machines at every turn by Democrats. As usual, both parties claim moral standing, and neither of them have it.

Critics also complain that the gambling money will quickly be absorbed into the government leviathan, never to be seen again. And it’s probably true. To win over crucial votes, Rendell cut a last-minute deal that basically hands some of the slots windfall over to the pigs at the trough–yes, there will be pork-barrel spending.

That is not, however, a reason to oppose gambling. I’ll go along with that argument when states start repealing property, income, and sales taxes because the revenues are being wasted. At least the slot-machine tax is not indiscriminant. If you can avoid succumbing to the flashing lights and the spinning cherries you can give yourself a tax cut.

Shawn Macomber is a staff writer at The American Spectator and runs the website www.ReturnofthePrimitive.com .

Members of the National Review editorial and operational teams are included under the umbrella “NR Staff.”

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