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Dec 24, 2008 1:55 am

"A Tax on Stupidity"

I'm sure that I'm not the first one to suggest that good cultural effects might accompany this economic downturn. Depressions can be "sobering." And, after all, the 1930s were a great decade in popular music, film, and fashion. An NPR Report;ft=1&f=1006

on state lotteries supports this hypothesis. It also suggests that government gambling policy is perverse.

People are gambling less, not more, in this downturn. That's good. As Samuel Johnson famously said, "Gambling is a tax on stupidity." In the old days, states criminalized gambling--probably a bad idea. (By the way, one of the first federal invasions on the reserved powers of the states was to make it a federal crime to transport lottery tickets across state lines--even if the state into which the tickets were brought allowed lotteries.) It might be best to leave people to learn Johnson's maxim for themselves, or perhaps to make gambling contracts unenforceable. But in the post-1960s, states went overboard in the other direction, and tried to collect the tax on stupidity themselves. (Of course, never to the point that they could eradicate private-sector gambling, because the private sector does it more efficiently--you can get better odds from your bookie than from the state. For an excellent analysis, see the relevant chapter in Hadley Arkes, First Things). Now, states have become gambling addicts themselves, and the gambling slump threatens state budgets. This may also be a good thing: Here's a straight line--a tax on stupidity is used to subsidize... public education.

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Arnold Shcherban - 12/26/2008

Well put, Aster.

Aster of Wellington - 12/26/2008

I recently had a talk with a (successful) local liquor dealer, who confidently expected good sales through the recession. His view was that, historically, people will adjust their budgets to make sure that they have some joy even in the midst of economic pain- in bad times, human beings crave all the more intense experience to remind them of why life remains worth living. A few friends (who, no, I don't trust completely as to either intent or judgment) have given me similar advice. I suspect the relation between improvidence and economic misfortune is more complicated than the above might suggest.

I just bought a newly adult friend (in law, but who cares) a liter of scotch whiskey for Christmas. New Zealand has a culture where drinking is a default social activity and there are gaming machines everywhere. People are happier. They are also more *free*. Kiwis get pissed, blow their paychecks, and set off fireworks, and are significantly not teetering on the brink of fascism. There may be a reason for that.

Yes, there's also a lot of child and spousal abuse- but there's also a lot of that in the U.S (and generally in precisely those nether regions which make so much noise about sin and sobriety). But here people talk about it instead of hush it up to preserve a moral image, and as a result there are more avenues of escape from it.

Johnson's quote is true for those who believe the exploitive lies of organised gambling, which is sociologically as much a tax on underprivilege and the resulting despair as it is of stupidity. But there is more to the practice. In some strains of Chinese culture (hardly the world's most irrational or uneconomic tradition), home-based gambling over mahjong has been a primary social occasion (a sexist one, but then what else is new?). The fact is that gambling lends a tinge of danger and excitement to otherwise bland activities- and such tinges are made use of by most enjoyable human activities- including very noticeably popular art and cinema, and in any interesting period extending also into high culture. A human life centered on prudence and responsibility calculates as if we were not mortal- and usually sustains itself by the spiritual abuse of posterity as a means by which to simulate that vicarious immortality. But we are all mortal (fill in the syllogism). No exceptions.

Lighten up!- and please resist that temptation to weaken those libertarian principles. Merry Solstice! Life is for living, and in a manner which is not too severely practical.

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