Of all the things that have been said recently about Las Vegas Sands CEO Sheldon Adelson’s crusade against online gambling, there’s one missing: He’s right.
That’s a far, far different thing from saying he’ll succeed in getting a federal ban of all online wagering, or that he should. And it’s also not saying he has pure motives — as my colleague Howard Stutz pointed out Sunday, Adelson doesn’t want others making money on a type of wagering in which he’s unwilling to invest.
But on the issue itself, regardless of why Adelson is saying it, what he’s saying is undoubtedly true.
No matter how technologically advanced the system, there’s no way to fully prevent underage gamblers from wagering. That’s far less true in actual casinos, where dealers and security officers are trained to spot and evict too-young patrons.
Problem gamblers will have a much harder time fighting their addiction when every tablet, smartphone and computer in their home suddenly becomes a virtual casino. “Click your mouse and lose your house” may be a catchy political slogan, but it’s also going to be the sad reality for some, and perhaps many.
These facts might not matter to some gambling entrepreneurs, but then again, some of them look at problem gambling less as a social pathology and more as a business plan.
In a Forbes op-ed published in June, Adelson called online gambling “a societal train wreck waiting to happen” and “a toxin which all good people ought to resist.”
“When gambling is available in every bedroom, every dorm and every office space, there will be no way to fully determine that each wager has been placed in a rational and consensual manner,” he wrote. “For example, the possibility of underage children finding ways to place online wagers and the possibility of people betting under the influence of drugs or being coerced are all scenarios that can happen when the person is only monitored by their own computer screen.”
Now, I’m not naive. I know government prohibition doesn’t work. It didn’t work with alcohol, it hasn’t worked with drugs, and it didn’t work with online gambling in the years when federal officials considered it illegal. Legalization, regulation and taxation will bring legal play under government oversight and protect consumers. As Geoff Freeman, president and CEO of the American Gaming Association, said: “The Internet cannot be forced back into the bottle — nor can market demand. We support pragmatism and strong regulation of online gaming that protects consumers, prevents underage play, ensures the integrity of games and empowers law enforcement.”
The only thing is, there’s no law that can effectively do all of those things. Just as the re-legalization of alcohol saw more negative social effects, just as the eventual and inevitable legalization of drugs will see more cases of abuse and addiction, the proliferation of online gambling will have the very effects Adelson predicts.
That doesn’t necessarily mean we should follow his advice; freedom in society means freedom to make bad choices. While we try to protect children and the especially vulnerable (i.e. gambling addicts) from those choices, we’ll never be able to do that completely. And bad things will happen as a result. Jonathan S. Tobin, writing in support of Adelson’s remarks on Commentary magazine’s website, notes “we don’t hear enough about how this supposedly harmless vice destroys countless families and lives. Wherever legal gambling flourishes, it generates a lot of work for bankruptcy lawyers and sets off waves of crime as debt-ridden gamblers resort to thievery and embezzlement. Every conceivable social pathology comes in its wake and though governments profit at one end with their large take of the cut, they pay for it in many other ways that have to do with the damage done to those destroyed by gambling.”
Surely, that’s been true of brick-and-mortar casinos, too. (Even beloved priests in Las Vegas are not immune!) But we’ve learned to live with the good and bad related to gambling. In exporting casino-style games to every Internet-connected electronic device in the nation, we should at the very least understand what we’re doing.
And on that score, even if Sheldon Adelson is a flawed messenger, he’s also something else: right.
Steve Sebelius is a Review-Journal political columnist and author of the blog SlashPolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter (@SteveSebelius) or reach him at 702-387-5276 or firstname.lastname@example.org.