Politicians Are Unqualified to Decide on Morality

The question of allowing casinos in the Catskills is not simply, “Should we allow casinos in the Catskills?” Rather, it is, “Should we allow politicians to rule on morality?”

Are you really best off allowing politicians — who are no more moral or sensible than you are — to decide what is right for you, and to try to protect you from harming yourself?

Gambling can be a terribly destructive habit, and one that we may believe is wrong. But who should make these decisions as to what activities individuals should be permitted to engage in?

A free society should allow the individual to make decisions for himself, based on his own conscience or faith, on matters such as what to eat, what to drink, what sorts of substances to put into his own body, and what moral code to live by. And that includes the freedom for the individual to make what most people — or even he himself — would consider a bad or self-destructive decision. I trust individuals to decide what constitutes the “right decision” for themselves more than I do politicians.

Indeed, it is quite a naive person who believes that politicians, by virtue of winning an election, have the right — or even the desire — to decide what’s best for us. When politicians do make these decisions, they almost always do so with some political motive, trade-off, or payoff in mind. Should we allow the individual to decide what is in his own best interest, or should we leave those decisions to someone who generally acts with ulterior, dubious motives, such as an attempt to appease politically powerful interest groups, or obtain votes or political donations? Individuals may not always make the correct decisions for themselves, but they generally have more honest intentions when doing so than do politicians. And politicians aren’t the ones who suffer the consequences or reap the benefits of the individual’s decisions.

When we allow politicians to make these personal decisions for us, we approach a dangerous slippery slope. Is gambling bad for people? Of course. What about drugs? Alcohol? Smoking? Skydiving? Trans fats? Too much sugar in your drinks? Too much ketchup on your French fries?

Who should draw the line?

The justification that allows for the more generally accepted government bans, on activities such as gambling or drugs, is the very same one that allows nanny statists to engage in the much-criticized trans-fat banning and “portion control.” If you cheer when government imposes its will to ban an activity you personally oppose, such as gambling, then you have no right to scream, “How dare you, nanny statist!” when government takes this too far, in your view, by banning something you may believe to be benign, like trans fats or sugary drinks — because you are not really opposing it on principle; you are merely opposing the scope.

We must remain vigilant in principle, rather than simply leaving decisions to a case-by-case decision by majority rule. And we are best off when we adhere to the principle of freedom — even when that results in undesirable activities such as gambling — rather than abandon a fierce commitment to principle in favor of allowing politicians to decide on the scope of morality. Better to allow individuals to make these decisions, and often be too permissive with themselves, than to allow government to make these decisions, and often be too restrictive with others.

Government does have one very important, primary function: to preserve liberty, by preventing one person from harming another. Therefore, whenever the question of a particular ban comes up, big-government advocates will inevitably declare that indeed, if we just looked closely enough, we would find that the particular activity does affect others: Failure to wear a seat belt affects others because if you get injured in an accident, it costs everyone more in insurance! Drugs affect others because addicts become unproductive members of society! Gambling affects others because gamblers steal to feed their habit! Casinos affect others because it brings undesirables to the neighborhood!

If we accepted these arguments, government would have the right to enact any law they could pass by majority decision. Indeed, by some indirect, distant calculation, everything can affect anyone. And by that calculation, we’d be well on the road to a tyranny of the majority.