October 28, 2014

Barney Frank’s The liberal case for casinos in the Boston Globe on October 25 was not only not a case for casinos, it suggested an understanding of liberalism that is in some ways hollow and others not in accord with ancient practices of liberalism in the commonwealth.

I say that Congressman Frank’s article was not a case for casinos because nowhere in the essay does he express a kind word for casinos. Rather, he adopts a sort of mystified tolerance for a practice he seems to regard as a bad but private individual choice. This is perhaps strategic because the opponents of the casino industry are not so concerned with each individual’s choices, bad or good, but with public policy that institutionalizes extractive corporations into Massachusetts.

Congressman Frank makes two arguments. The first focuses on the cohort of individuals that might overdo it at a casino, causing harm to themselves, but with no mention of damage to their families or communities. As one whose occasional $2 win bets proved insufficient to keep Suffolk Downs open, I too am pleased that opponents have not made the argument that betting is “inherently immoral,” but I do not think that is the end of it. To some, the question of the morality of an issue can be readily dismissed if associated with “religious conservatives.” The involvement of the religious community in a diverse polity wrestling with moral questions vexes our democracy. Mr. Frank readily provides issues where many Massachusetts liberals would like religious spokesman to not impose their morals on us. In other cases though the backing of the religious community is sought by our most liberal leaders, as when Governor Deval Patrick stood with faith leaders at his press conference announcing that Massachusetts would welcome unaccompanied children.

Try as we might to avoid the suggestion of moral concerns that might affect the individual liberties of others, we do so in our public policy. For example, Congressman Frank explains the “guiding principle” of liberalism to be “that government should protect individuals from being harmed by others, but not impose rules which keep them from making choices about things that affect themselves, even if a good case can be made that they are unwise.” I would understand that government should protect individuals from being harmed by others” as a moral claim on public policy, including regulation or even exclusion of the casino industry. As I suggested in Does #MaGov14 Have a Heart the liberal impulse to assist others in our commonwealth comes from the religious teachings of John Winthrop’s Model of Christian Charity: “If thy brother be in want and thou canst help him, thou needs not make doubt of what thou shouldst do; if thou lovest God thou must help him.”

This perspective on our obligations to each other also helps to answer Mr. Frank’s second argument, that gambling is bad for low-income people and that the polity should not demean them by assuming the arrogance of making choices for other adults. Mr. Frank calls his liberal allies to task for adopting an argument that sounds suspiciously conservative:

I am struck by the similarity between this liberal insistence on keeping the poor from wasting their money on slot machines and lottery tickets and the conservative effort — which liberals generally oppose — on putting much tighter controls on how they spend the various forms of assistance some receive.

It is nice to see amidst the strife of politics that liberals and conservatives can share such a common outlook. I have written repeatedly that the fraud in the EBT card outcry is in the political scapegoating of a program (and the people it serves) when the amount of actual fraud by recipients is tiny - to look at the dollar amounts involved is to suggest that Massachusetts may have the most honest poor people in the nation. Congressman Frank argues that society has no right to interfere with the individual liberty of recipients to spend as they wish. However as Jonathon Haidt writes in The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, a different and respectable moral outlook shared by many is that when society (okay, the taxpayers) provides resources to help families through tough times, we can rightly expect recipients to use the resources on food and clothing, not tattoos, strip joints – or casinos.

Even with our moral baseline set by ancestors like Winthrop, Massachusetts is still a more individualistic than a moralistic state, so I expect Mr. Frank’s arguments to have great currency.

That and millions of dollars of corporate advertising.

Barney Frank, casinos, gambling

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