Morality And Humanity In The Gambling Debate

Opposition to gambling has always been somewhat aesthetic and moralistic. The character of that moralising has, however, changed over time.

During the Middle Ages, betting was seen as unproductive and idle. Only knights, clergymen, and monarchs had sufficiently good character to be allowed to play dice for money.

A few hundred years later, Reformation era moralists saw gambling as sin. It was blasphemous to ask God to decide such trivial matters as dice throws.

Their Enlightenment descendants imagined gambling to be irrational; contrary to the spirit of the age of reason. The 19th century saw it as a social disorder; disruptive, inefficient, and, as a consequence, borderline criminal.

Anti-gambling activists of the early 20th century focused on class. The lower and upper orders played different games. Predictably and unfairly, working-class gambling was suppressed, and upper-class gambling left alone.

Today, the vast bulk of anti-gambling opinion has a medical hue. We now see gambling mostly through the prism of illness and addiction.

Mental health concerns are genuine and serious and do not deserve to be dismissed out of hand – regardless of whether we think the Government should step in to manage or override people’s choices.

But the aesthetic and moralistic critique of gambling has not disappeared.

Certainly it’s obvious that opposition to, for instance, poker machines, is not solely based on data revealing the relative incidence of problem gambling occurring on the pokies compared to other games.

A part of that opposition (we can disagree how big a part) is undeniably grounded on how the pokies look ‘sad’. Playing is solitary. Players appear joyless. A poker machine seems to be a mechanised and computerised tool of corporate manipulation; a metaphor of consumer capitalism made real. (‘People cannot seriously enjoy pokies, can they?’)

These impressions colour the debate over poker machine regulation.

Nick Xenophon’s weekend statements suggest much of the political push against the pokies is motivated not by a belief that the pokies are uniquely dangerous, but by a distaste for gambling in general.

The South Australian Senator is drafting a bill to crack down on online betting. And he’s upset about the very existence of sports wagers. In comments to The Age on Saturday, he said he wants to “ban commentators referring to the odds”, ban “odds being broadcast” and impose “restrictions on the maximum bets being able to be played”.

Xenophon would also like advertising of online gambling sites to be banned, having argued in the past gambling advertising should be regulated as heavily as tobacco advertising – in other words, regulated out of existence.

The reasons Xenophon offers for such restrictions are many and familiar. He argues gambling poses dangers to sport itself – match-fixing is inevitable in a world where sports betting is widespread.

‘Children – think of the children!’ could be normalised to gambling. This is left unexplored, but is presumably undesirable; the implicit argument being that sports betting, while not necessarily harmful itself, is a gateway drug to the RSL.

Then, of course, the aesthetic argument: “It’s a shame for the great game of cricket that it’s been reduced to just another event to have a punt on,” Xenophon said in 2008.

Whether gambling enhances “the great game” or undermines it, preserving the enjoyableness of sporting events should not be a central concern of parliament, let alone the Commonwealth Parliament.

As the social scientist Gerda Reith argued in her 1999 book The Age of Chance: Gambling in Western Culture, gambling is endemic, historically and in the modern world. And, as a consequence, has developed great cultural significance.

Through gambling, people engage both the mathematical concept of probability, and the metaphysical concept of chance. It’s a way to make light of risk; to tame uncertainty.

In other words, gambling is part of human nature.

Given gambling’s cultural centrality, it’s not clear why the Government should try to wall it off; to regulate gambling into an isolated and denigrated corner of the Australian consciousness.

Rather than treating gambling as alien and dangerous and not fit for children, why not treat it as a normal part of being and encourage it to be enjoyed responsibly?

Gambling is, after all, just a game.

Bookmakers are running odds on nearly every facet of the royal wedding: the first dance, the colour of the bride’s dress, the colour of Victoria Beckham’s dress, whether Prince Phillip will fall asleep during the ceremony, whether chicken tikka masala will be the main course, and whether Prince Harry will drop the ring and be too drunk to finish his speech (25-1, as of a few days ago). And, unsurprisingly, on the chances of divorce.

These bets do not detract from the wedding, which will be as painful as it would be in a world without wagers.

They do, however, make a game out of it – transforming the public from spectators to participants.

For moralist opponents of gambling like Nick Xenophon, such engagement only conjures up images of ruin.

But there is no need to be that pessimistic. The desire to play games of chance is a part of the human condition. Archaeologists have discovered four sided sticks – proto-dice – dating to 6000BC. In 2011, let’s try not be so scared of it.