The Insanity of Regulation

Near the end of his life, Thomas Jefferson found himself in a tight spot financially. He had spent the previous 60 years or so in the public service as President, Vice-President, Governor, Ambassador, Regent of the University of Virginia, etc. These various services to his country and state kept him, so he claimed, from properly attending to his own affairs. As a result, he ended up deep in debt.

His solution was to sell some of his property to pay off his creditors. However, the land was very valuable and the market was very depressed, so he feared that there would be nobody willing to pay full price. As an alternative to traditional sale, he proposed a lottery. By putting up the property as the prize of a lottery, he believed that he stood a better chance of receiving full value for the land. The only problem was the the Commonwealth of Virginia regulates all lotteries, so Jefferson would need special dispensation from the legislature. So he made an appeal, recounting all of his services to state and country and waxing philosophical about the moral implications of gambling.

Jefferson starts this appeal by acknowledging that “chance” is merely the name given to causes that we do not or cannot know. “If we know the cause [of a thing], we do not call it chance; but if we do not know it, we say it was produced by chance.” So every human endeavor includes some element of chance. He calls the farmer “the greatest of all gamblers” because the farmer risks his rent, his seeds, and his labor on a crop that may fail because of things beyond his control. And because all human action is a gamble to some extent, gambling cannot be immoral per se. So far, so good.

But then Jefferson holds in opposition those games of chance that are not productive in the way that insurance or capital investment are. (I briefly observe that games of chance are productive in the form of entertainment, which can be hard to measure but clearly has value.) He writes of “cards, dice, billiards, &c.” as games “which produce nothing, and endanger the well-being of the individuals engaged in them.” And he lauds the state’s suppression of these games for the sake of those who would be injured by playing and losing. Here, I think, Jefferson busts.

Jefferson acknowledges that there is a natural right to gamble. This, I take it, is based on two considerations: first, as discussed above, gambling is not immoral per se, but is merely another term for the risks that all of us take in each of our daily actions; and second, that the natural right to property necessarily includes the right to dispose of it by sale, gift, or game of chance. (A previous post on this blog discusses the curious relationship between Jefferson’s and Locke’s notions of the natural right to property.) So once gambling is acknowledged as a natural right, how can its prohibition be justified?

The justification is by way of analogy. The analogy drawn by Jefferson is between degenerate gambling and “insanity, infancy, imbecility, &c.” If a gambling addiction is a sort of madness, then the state is right to prohibit gambling for the protection of the addicts. But even if we agree that a gambling addiction is akin to a mental handicap – which is at least debatable – the analogy is somewhat unfair. Why should all table games be banned for the protection of the fraction of the population that suffers from a gambling addiction? If we do not allow children or the mentally ill to drive cars by virtue of their infancy or insanity, that does not mean that we would authorize the state to ban cars outright. And if cars are too modern a concept, then consider an example of what children and the insane could not do in Jefferson’s day: neither group was capable of entering into legally binding contracts. Yet Jefferson would not have advocated the notion that the enforcement of all contracts should be banned for the sake of the children and the insane. Rather, the intervention of the state should be limited to protecting the narrow subset of individuals while interfering as little as possible with the rights of everybody else.

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Beer of the week: Wieselburger Gold – Jefferson may have found himself short on gold, but who isn’t? If the name “Gold” is used to describe the color this Austrian beer, the name is not very apt. This brew is much more pale than anything that I would call gold. If the name refers to the quality of the beer, they still come up a bit short; this is a bronze medal beer, silver at best. What little head there is dissipates quickly, and there is hardly an aroma to speak of. However, the flavor is not without its charms. There is a bit of malt sweetness up front, and a floral, hoppy finish that leaves the mouth feeling dry, always encouraging the next sip.

Reading for the week: Thoughts on Lotteries by Thomas Jefferson – There is more to dislike about this appeal than the weak analogy between gamblers and the insane. Notably, Jefferson discusses his own political career at length and argues that he should be entitled to exceptional treatment by the legislature on those grounds.

Question for the week: Is there a formula for what percent of the population is impacted before rightful actions should be banned?

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Supposedly, the single greatest invention in casino gambling (from the point of view of the casino owners) is the board next to the roulette table that displays the results of the last several spins. Potential players will see, for example, that the last 10 spins have all been black, and they will think, “The odds of 11 straight black spins is quite low! It is more than usually likely that the next spin will be red!” Or, in short, “Red is due!”

But red is not due. The odds of any given spin of a roulette wheel are the same as every other spin. Each individual spin of the wheel is completely independent of each other. So although it is true that the odds of 11 straight black spins is quite low, the odds of the eleventh spin are not at all affected by the 10 that preceded it. The board does not lie, but it does present information that makes it easy for people to lie to themselves.

There have been suggestions that television and the internet have a similar effect on people. The new media grants us access to unimaginable quantities of information; more than we could ever really process. But, as in the casino, more information does not necessarily mean more understanding. In fact, extraneous information can make it harder to think clearly about what is really going on. And often, the information that is thrust upon us by the house (even when it is not untrue) is the kind of information that is really designed to obscure the way we think about what is actually important.

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Beer of the week: Shock Top Choc’ Top – This week is something of a three-for-one deal. This is the first layered beer drink to be reviewed on this site. It is a combination of Shock Top Belgian White and their winter seasonal, Chocolate Wheat. So first, I tried the component beers:

Shock Top Belgian White – This wheat beer is cloudy and slightly orange colored. According to the bottle, it is brewed with citrus peals and coriander, but I couldn’t really taste the coriander. There is, however, a definite aroma of orange. I was surprised to find that the brewers showed some restraint in not overdoing the orange sweetness. Unfortunately, that is partly because there really is very little flavor at all. The beer is smooth and refreshing, but decidedly bland. Since this beer is unfiltered, at the bottom of my glass I had a little extra sediment that did add a bit of pleasant yeastiness, a little hint of how close this beer gets to being good instead of just ok.

Shock Top Chocolate Wheat – This very dark wheat beer pours with a creamy tan head, which unfortunately dissipates quickly. Vanilla and coffee dominate the aroma. Notes of chocolate and coffee blend with the vanilla to make this taste more like a piece of cake than like beer. I couldn’t drink this often, but as the Preacher says, “A time to every purpose under heaven.”

Choc’ Top (Shock Top Belgian White layered on top of Shock Top Chocolate Wheat) – I was positively tickled with how nicely the beers layered and how pretty the drink looked. Early on, the Belgian White’s flavor dominates, naturally, with just hints of vanilla and chocolate slipping in at the finish. By the end, there is mostly only the darker beer left, though the sweetness is not quite as pronounced as the Chocolate Wheat alone. Overall, I like it. It looks so good that I am willing to forgive the fact that it really is a bit too sweet. I just think of it as a desert beer.

Reading of the week: Jim Smily and His Jumping Frog by Mark Twain – The titular character of this story (also known as The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County) is a compulsive gambler. He’d bet on anything: “if there was a dog-fight, he’d bet on it; if there was a cat-fight, he’d bet on it; if there was a chicken-fight, he’d bet on it; why if there was two birds setting on a fence, he would bet you which one would fly first”. But he met his match when he tried to introduce a wringer into a frog jumping contest.

Question of the week: Does the player get any advantage from knowing the result of previous spins of the wheel, or is that information strictly extraneous?