Mises Daily Articles
Saving Alabama from Bingo
Alabama Governor Bob Riley has become a paradigm of state interventionism and tax-and-spend policies. Historically, Governor Riley has carried out his big-government policies with the help of his attorney general, Troy King. Together they helped to expand the government's control towards a police state. Recent events have disrupted the rather unfortunate status quo.
Troy King, appointed attorney general in 2004 by Governor Riley, has taken a noble stand against the police state. King committed what could become political suicide when he defied Governor Riley's demands for him to use state resources to prosecute businesses that offer bingo. King refused to prosecute bingo providers because, in his opinion, Alabama law does not prohibit businesses from offering bingo to customers.
Of course Riley was not deterred in his quest to rid Alabama from the unspeakable evil that is bingo. He found a district attorney from Jefferson County, David Barber, who had had previous success in prosecuting businesses that provided the gambling services that customers demanded. After circumventing Attorney General King, Governor Riley gave Barber the resources of the Alabama Bureau of Investigation and the Alcoholic Beverage Control Board, through an executive order. Thus the "Governor's Task Force on Illegal Gambling" (official title) was created.
Governor Riley is attempting to use his position as governor to force his own sense of morality upon the citizens. Using Soviet-style rhetoric, Riley is attempting to convince the proletariat that he is defending the poor. Riley's central claim is that electronic bingo exploits the poorest citizens while making a handful of businessmen wealthy. Of course this argument presupposes that the poor are either forced to play bingo against their will or are in some way tricked into doing so. It completely ignores the possibility that anyone plays bingo simply as a pastime rather than to "strike it rich."
There are certainly some ignorant citizens, unaware of the laws of probability, who truly believe that bingo is a good way to win money. Given this assumption, one must ask, what right does the state have to prevent citizens from making financially unwise decisions? If we are to believe that the state does have the right to save the poor from themselves with respect to bingo, then at what point is the line drawn? Should the state issue an "approved items" list containing all of the items that the state deems to be financially prudent while banning the poor from purchasing unapproved items? After all, most financial advisors would agree that an iPhone or plasma TV is not a financially wise purchase for someone earning the minimum wage.
In another staggering display of faulty logic, Riley stated, "The gambling axis in Alabama is not interested in rescuing Medicaid or education. They could care less." This was in response to bingo proponents' claims that revenues generated from taxes levied on bingo would help to alleviate Alabama's budget shortfall. Simply because bingo operators do not conduct their business with the express purpose of enriching the welfare state does not mean that the revenue generated from taxing their profits would not benefit the treasury. I doubt that Pizza Hut is interested in rescuing Medicaid or education. Should there be a task force to eliminate Pizza Hut?
If Riley were really interested in helping the poor, he would reconsider Alabama's income-tax code. It is among the most regressive in the nation. Alabama's tax threshold is the lowest of all the states in the Union. A family of four with a total annual income of $4,600 would still be forced to pay state income taxes. Instead, the governor is forcibly taking money from the poorest citizens so that he can afford to protect them from themselves. Surely taking money from the poor in order to prevent them from wasting money is more morally reprehensible, given the violation of individual liberty, than allowing them to make poor decisions.
Attorney General King, not typically known for his devotion to individual liberty and small government, took an uncharacteristically principled stand. When interviewed about bingo in Alabama, King said, "Personally, I am opposed to gambling. I have voted against it when I've had the opportunity to do so. But as Attorney General, I have given up the right to enforce my will. I have to enforce the laws as they are written."
King now claims that the state should hold a special vote regarding bingo. He proposes that the people be allowed to decide whether or not they want to allow electronic bingo in their state. Holding a vote on the issue is certainly preferable to the dictatorial decree of politicians. It is debatable whether or not the majority has the right to force its collective morality upon the minority, but that issue should be the topic of a separate article. At least with a popular vote on the issue, some of the people will have a say in their governance rather than being subject to the whim of politicians. While King does have a history of proposing and enforcing some notoriously bad legislation, his exceptional conduct with regard to this issue has earned him a degree of redemption.
Governor Riley has chosen to forfeit the considerable revenue that could be generated from taxing bingo operations. He has also elected to use taxpayer money and state resources to impose his will upon the people — in defiance of the laws he swore to uphold.
The effects of gambling prohibition have numerous unintended consequences. These unintended consequences will likely resemble those of national alcohol prohibition and drug prohibition; more can be read about this subject in Dr. Mark Thornton's excellent book The Economics of Prohibition.
The costs of the persecution of bingo operators are not limited to the financial burden on taxpayers but also include loss of individual liberty and the unintended consequences, which are difficult to quantify. Citizens, no matter how rich or poor, have the right to make bad decisions.