Michael Gerson: Corrupting citizens for fun and profit
WASHINGTON -- Two of the larger social trends of our time—the growth of payday gambling and the legalization of marijuana—have two things in common: They are justified as the expansion of personal liberty, and they serve the interests of an expanding government.
The ideological alliance behind these changes is among the strangest in American politics. Libertarians seek to lift governmental restraints on consensual acts. State governments seek sources of revenue without the political inconvenience of requesting broad tax increases. Both find common ground in encouraging and exploiting the weaknesses and addictions of citizens. (And business interests and their lobbyists, of course, find new ways to profit from reliable vices.)
The financial appeal is forthright. Maryland did not legalize gambling in order to expand the realm of personal autonomy. It collects a 61 percent tax on slot machine revenues. Colorado expects about $114 million in taxes and fees during its first year of marijuana legalization.
“If Colorado is able to rake in substantial amounts of tax revenue,” according to one news account, “legalization advocates’ pitches to legislatures in Oregon, Massachusetts and Alaska become that much easier.”
Consider the perspective of a state legislator. Your state has incurred a variety of unfunded obligations. Voting to raise taxes might cost your job. Legalizing gambling or pot, in contrast, will bring in new revenues and perhaps new campaign donations. And some people will call it the advance of freedom!
This is a tribute to a hardy weed—in this case, the hardy weed of government, which can grow in any political environment. If you are a progressive who wants universal health coverage, government expands. If you are a libertarian who wants people to be able to waste their money at casinos, or smoke and ingest whatever they damn well please, government expands as well.
But this particular enlargement depends on minimizing and dismissing the consequences for individuals and communities.
Gambling is merely entertainment—though modern slot machines are really sophisticated computer programs designed to elicit Pavlovian responses until victims “play to extinction.” An estimated 40 percent to 60 percent of slot revenues come from problem gamblers. And casinos are often sited to attract working-class people.
Pot is harmless—though we really have little information on the health and cultural effects of the widespread legal distribution of modern, potent methods of consuming THC (the chemical name). We do know that the substance is addictive in about one of nine cases (more like one in six when use starts in the teens); that it can make structural changes in portions of the brain controlling emotion and motivation; and that regular use undermines memory, attention span, problem-solving skills and the ability to complete complex tasks. What possible use could these attributes be in a modern economy?
There is also little doubt that an expanded legal market in pot also expands the illegal market for reselling (or giving) to children and teens. And the product—especially Colorado’s ingestible pot lollipops and gummy bears—is particularly suitable. The social message of normalization, of banalization, is intended—and received by young people. The first $40 million of Colorado’s pot revenues is slated for public school construction. What were once “drug-free school zones” are becoming drug-funded schools. Will there be a celebratory plaque in seventh-grade classrooms: “Brought to you by the potheads of the Centennial State”?
Parents no longer expect much help from government in reinforcing the cultural and moral norms necessary to the raising of responsible, successful children. But now some states are profiting from actively undermining those norms. Apparently, only consenting adults matter. Libertarian utopias are always childless.
For the strongest ideological advocates of this approach, the outcomes are largely irrelevant. It ultimately doesn’t matter if teen drug use increases by X percent, or gambling addiction rises Y percent. Ending “consensual crimes” is a matter of principle—not just on pot and slots but on heroin and meth. The idea of a political community upholding standards, in order to help other institutions (such as families) pass healthy cultural norms between generations, is anathema.
But libertarians are now, paradoxically, providing ideological air cover for irresponsible government. State officials just want the money, however it is blessed, without requesting it through the normal democratic process. Rather than building social competence and capital, politicians increasingly benefit when citizens are addicted, exploited, impoverished and stoned. And that deserves contempt, not applause.
Michael Gerson is a columnist for the Washington Post Writers Group; email firstname.lastname@example.org.