Public Nuisance

Random commentary and senseless acts of blogging.

The first Republican president once said, "While the people retain their virtue and their vigilance, no administration by any extreme of wickedness or folly can seriously injure the government in the short space of four years." If Mr. Lincoln could see what's happened in these last three-and-a-half years, he might hedge a little on that statement.
-Ronald Reagan

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Tuesday, May 06, 2003
The Gambler

Michael Kinsley has the best take on Bill Bennett's little secret. This is no surprise - if anybody better than Kinsley is writing on American politics and society I don't know about it, and if anybody was, I probably would. Kinsley:

He's not a complete idiot. Working his way down the list of other people's pleasures, weaknesses, and uses of American freedom, he just happened to skip over his own. How convenient. Is there some reason why his general intolerance of the standard vices does not apply to this one? None that he's ever mentioned.

Open, say, Bennett's The Broken Hearth: Reversing the Moral Collapse of the American Family, and read about how Americans overvalue "unrestricted personal liberty." How we must relearn to "enter judgments on a whole range of behaviors and attitudes." About how "wealth and luxury ... often make it harder to deny the quest for instant gratification" because "the more we attain, the more we want." How would you have guessed, last week, that Bennett would regard a man who routinely "cycle[s] several hundred thousand dollars in an evening" (his own description) sitting in an airless Las Vegas casino pumping coins into a slot machine or video game? Well, you would have guessed wrong! He thinks it's perfectly OK as long as you don't spend the family milk money.

Stanley Kurtz is defending Bennett from Kinsley on the Corner. Kurtz's defense of his fellow rightist is predictable and predictably wrong:

Michael Kinsley’s case against William Bennett today contains a logical trick. According to Kinsley, Bennett can’t defend himself on libertarian grounds because he’s condemned libertarianism in all other things. Bennett, for example, condemns marijuana use by the healthy and wealthy, because it erodes social norms that keep more vulnerable people from drug abuse. So, Kinsley says, if Bennett admits that there is such a thing as problem gambling, why doesn’t even Bennett’s own affordable gambling erode the norms that prevent problem gambling in others?

The flaw in Kinsley’s argument is that gambling is legal, while Marijuana use is not. Bennett does not oppose drinking by those who can hold their liquor, or gambling by those who don’t deprive their families, nor should he. It’s perfectly fair to argue, against Bennett, that society ought to legalize Marijuana. That’s a judgment call in which we balance the potential social harms of Marijuana itself, and of a general weakening in anti-drug norms, with the benefits of personal freedom. But since gambling and alcohol are already legal, and since Bennett doesn’t want to ban either, I see no hypocrisy in his actions.

The fault in Kurtz's argument is that he has pretended that it is simply an issue of legal versus illegal. In fact, Bennett has condemned a raft of behaviors for causing alleged social harm which are legal in most or all of the US: homosexuality, divorce, out-of-wedlock births, even gangsta rap and tv violence. All of these are more generally legal than gambling - the slot machines Bennett favors are illegal in most states; of the above items only homosexuality is illegal anywhere in the US; laws against consensual adult homosexuality exist in fewer states than laws against gambling, and unlike gambling laws are very rarely enforced even when they do exist.

Kinsley is aware of this and mentions marijuana only in one paragraph and mostly in passing. Kurtz has pulled one argument from Kinsley and used it out of context to produce his dishonest critique.

Incidentally, whatever other problems Bennett has, he is obviously in serious denial:

Bennett claims he's beaten the odds: "Over 10 years, I'd say I've come out pretty close to even."

"You can roll up and down a lot in one day, as we have on many occasions," Bennett explains. "You may cycle several hundred thousand dollars in an evening and net out only a few thousand."

Slots are pure mathematics. If you play them over a sustained period, you will come out behind, unless you are freakishly lucky and get a huge score to offset your losses. If you play them for large sums over a sustained period, you will always come out behind. It has nothing to do with luck - it's simply a statistical fact. (Brad deLong broke away from his Calpundit obsession long enough to run the numbers.)