John Hood's Syndicated Weekly Column
RALEIGH – Jim Black is right.
About video poker, I mean. That is to say, I agree with the embattled speaker of the North Carolina House that there is no good reason to enact a statewide ban of video-poker machines, as the Senate has already voted to do and the House may later in the 2006 legislative session.
While Black tends to emphasize the employment effects of prohibition – a loss of jobs at convenience stores, which is of concern but not likely to be of great magnitude – I think that the most important reason not to ban video poker is that it would reduce individual freedom.
If living in a free society means that I have only the right to spend my time and money in wise and moral ways, then it doesn’t mean much at all. Freedom must mean the freedom to be foolish and immoral, too. Most gambling, particularly when there is no skill involved and one is betting on sheer luck, is either a silly frivolity or, for some, the gateway to a life of debt and frustration. But if North Carolinians are to live in a free society, they still have every right to engage in it. As long as your gambling does not infringe on my right not to engage in or promote gambling – a test that private video poker passes but a state-run lottery does not – the proper response is to allow it while those so inclined work to discourage it in other ways, such as moral suasion.
To be fair, there may still be some areas of legitimate concern even if one is respecting individual freedom. Limited governments do have the responsibility to police fraud, which as I understand it is not unheard of in the gambling business. But measures to combat fraud must fall far short of a ban, at least if we value freedom the way we should. Protecting the freedom to squander pocket change on video poker may not benefit you or me directly today. But it would uphold a fundamental principle that may well protect something some you or I wish to do tomorrow.
Does opposing a video-poker ban make me a creature of the video-poker industry? No, of course not. I have no personal or financial relationship with them. I’ve never played any of the games myself. As is readily apparent, the argument that Black must have made a quid pro quo arrangement with the industry, to oppose prohibition in exchange for campaign cash, is a premature one. It is quite possible to come to the conclusion the speaker has regarding video poker without having been influenced by surreptitious gifts or campaign cash.
That having been said, I’d be more persuaded of the speaker’s commitment to individual freedom on this issue if it didn’t seem so, well, exceptional. The same principle that leads one to oppose government prohibition of video poker, that it is a voluntary transaction from which jobs and revenues derive, should lead one to oppose other government interventions based on paternalistic grounds, such as:
• Increases in the government-mandated minimum wage. Unless water begins running uphill and other basic laws of time and space are repealed, forcing wages above the market price of labor must lead to less employment of that labor. In this case, those who gain from minimum-wage hikes are primarily not poor (teenagers and young adults from middle-income families looking for spending money and work experience) while those who lose jobs and economic opportunities are likely to be the poorest and neediest of the low-skilled workforce.
• Mandated benefits on state-regulated health insurance. The composition of the health plan I buy from an insurer, or from my employer as an intermediary for the insurer, should be of concern only to me and my vendor. Unfortunately, that’s not the way North Carolina policymakers see it. At the behest of special-interest groups, they have forced me and other North Carolinians who work for small employers – large employers self-insure and are thus exempt under federal law – to pay more for insurance that covers benefits we wouldn’t bother paying for voluntarily. Higher premiums mean a higher overall cost of employing someone, which again must inevitably result in lower job creation.
Far from affirming the values of individual liberty and freedom of contract in these spheres, Speaker Black is on record supporting a minimum-wage increase and favoring many health-insurance mandates in the past. His views on government regulation of private business would seem clearly to be inconsistent.
I suppose there could be some other reason for the speaker’s dogged persistence in defending the video-poker industry from government prohibition. Will check into it.
Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation and publisher of CarolinaJournal.com.