Bill Bennet teaches by example

There’s not much hope that Bill Bennett will find the intense delight he has given to his many loyal enemies adequate recompense for the $8 million he appears to have blown on his gambling addiction. But I suppose we ought to take delight where we can find it. “It shouldn’t,” as my grandmother used to say, “be a total loss.” What could be more perfect poetic justice than watching a man who made millions of dollars writing a book about virtue without an index entry for “temperance” or “moderation” fall victim to an addiction?

I know ought to feel sorry for Bennett and his family, and disapprove of the joyous dancing around his sickbed — he’s obviously a gambling addict, a condition which is, despite all the scoffing, recognized as a psychiatric diagnosis for perfectly valid reasons — but I’m not really up to the requisite moral effort. Bennett’s reaction to the news story — claiming that he’d been playing the slots heavily for years and come out about even — suggests to me that he thinks he’s playing charades and that the word is “denial.”

Of course, everything he says about his gambling — that he can take it or leave it alone, that he hasn’t hurt anyone else, that the trouble some people get into is no reason to deny others an innocent pleasure — is exactly what millions of casual illicit drug users have wanted to say to him ever since he did such a good job of making them the national enemy. Bennett, and his then-assistant (now successor) John Walters, were quite clear on the idea that it was precisely those whose illicit drug use wasn’t out of control who needed to be singled out for the most vigorous persecution, on the grounds that they were providing a bad example (or, rather, failing to provide the desired bad example) to others.

[Leave it to Atrios to pick up on the delicious fact buried in the Washington Monthly piece: Bennett didn’t even stick to legal gambling. For years, he’s been part of a low-stakes poker game in Washington involving the Chief Justice, Justice Scalia, and Robert Bork. Having a poker game in your home appears to be a felony under the D.C. Criminal Code, though playing in such a game doesn’t seem to be covered. You can reasonably think that such laws deserve to be ignored, but then you can reasonably think that about the marijuana laws as well.]

Bennett’s permissive attitude toward his own vices is nothing new, though. He was a cigarette smoker until Teddy Kennedy made him promise to give it up as the price of confirmation as drug czar, and I’ve been reliably informed that he continued to sneak ciggies once in office. When challenged about why cigarettes were ok and marijuana wasn’t, he replied “I haven’t done any drive-by shootings lately,” which is again precisely the claim of the drug legalizers: that it isn’t the addictiveness of the illicit drugs that makes them a social problem, it’s their illegality.

Just a note, though, to those who are laughing now: Bennett, albeit unwillingly, has just provided a good argument for tight regulation of the vices, including intoxicant use as well as gambling. (I’m using “vice” here to mean, not something I disapprove of morally, but a commodity or activity with a much-greater-than-average propensity to escape the volitional self-control of some of its participants, leading them to damage themselves, and sometimes others, as a result.)

Most people who drink, smoke, take other drugs, or gamble never get in trouble, or get in a little bit of trouble, learn their lesson, and then either moderate their activity or give it up entirely. But the minority who get in trouble and stay in trouble make enormous trouble for themselves and those around them, and there seems to be no basis in fact for the comforting myth that only a predisposed few — victims of a genetic abnormality or an “addictive personality” — are at risk. Becoming a chronic drunk is a statistically predictable risk of drinking at all, and the cheaper and less regulated alcohol is the greater the probability that a given person will first try it and then get in bad trouble with it.

We could try to change our culture to reinforce patterns of controlled drinking and make more dangerous patterns less acceptable — that is, we could try to become more Mediterranean and less Northern European in our drinking patterns — but that sort of cultural change is easier to imagine than it is to execute. In the meantime, if the cost of reducing somewhat the number of people whose lives are blighted by alcohol is some level of interference with the innocent pleasure of drinking for the rest of us, that may be a price we should be willing to pay.

If a vice is legal, there will be an industry that depends on it. That industry will make most of its sales not to the majority of casual, satisfied users but to the minority of problem users. I enjoy playing poker for moderately high stakes, and do so whenever I am forced for business reasons to go to Las Vegas or Reno. But if the casinos depended on people like me, there wouldn’t be many casinos around. The casino industry depends on the Bill Bennetts of the world, just as the beer companies depend on the drunks. (Half of all the alcohol consumed in the US is used by people who drink 1500 drinks a year or more: that is to say, chronic alcohol abusers.)

So legalizing any vice means creating an industry devoted to creating and maintaining addiction to that vice. And as the state lotteries have demonstrated, that industry can be just as unprincipled — and probably less regulated — in its exploitation of human weakness if it’s a state monopoly rather than a group of private businesses.

Sometimes keeping a vice illegal has even worse consequences than making it legal. (And even when prohibition, or very tight regulation, is called for, there’s no guarantee that it will be done intelligently and considerately rather than stupidly and vindictively, as our current drug laws do it.) But it is simply not the case, as the libertarians fondly imagine it to be, that the vice problem resides entirely in the sick imaginations of a few Puritans and the campaign speeches of cynical politicians. The human tendency to behave badly in the face of certain kinds of pleasures, including those of gambling and intoxication, is a fact about the species that policymakers ignore at their peril.

Update I’m late to the party here. (Hey, you try maintaining consistent blogging while teaching two new big lecture courses.) Here’s what some of the rest of Blogistan thinks, and some of what I think in response. [The ever-useful Blogdex has a complete listing of blogs linking to the original Washington Monthly article.]

Viginia Postrel notes, correctly, that neither Bennett nor the Catholic moral tradition he comes from has ever condemned gambling as such, and asserts that this ought to clear him of the charge of hypocrisy. But, as Brad DeLong points out, Bennett’s claim to have broken even (which Eugene Volokh is at least prepared to entertain as one possibility) is so far-fetched as to be virtually impossible as a statistical matter. Since Bennett is clearly on record against lying, I think his pretense to have not lost money counts as hypocrisy, as well as an insult to our intelligence.

[Note to DeLong: the high-stakes slots in Vegas don’t take anything like 10% of the gross; 2-4% is more like it. But a really dedicated slots player can pull that lever every few seconds; playing the $500 slots, the gross amount gambled can therefore reach $300,000 per hour, with an expected loss per hour in the high-thousands range. Could Bennett have managed 100 10-hour sessions over ten years? Sure.]

Eugene notes that gambling is not entirely illegal, while drug use is. Eugene thinks that that distinction reflects some sort of general social moral judgment on which Bennett can rely in arguing that his particular vice is OK while drug use isn’t. But “drug use” is entirely illegal only if alcohol isn’t a drug, which is pharmacologically just silly. If the principle is that using an intoxicant is wrong because it deprives one (temporarily) of the use of one’s reason, then getting drunk is, as the lawyers say, “on all fours” with getting stoned. So Bennett can’t rest on the difference between gambling and “drugs.” At best, he could rest on the difference between legal gambling and illegal drug use, but that runs into the fact that he has also engaged in illegal gambling. As one who has been loud in his insistence that citizens owe it to one another to respect even those laws with which they disagree, Bennett once again seems to have violated his own stated principles. Moreover, as Michael Kinsley notes, Bennett’s own Empower America explicity denounces gambling, and “problem gambling” is on his list of “cultural indicators.” All in all, then, I think Eugene’s generous attempt to defend Bennett, with whom he disagrees substantively, from the charge of hypocrisy is valiant but unavailing.

Second update Andrew Sullivan (who agrees with Bennett’s defenders that he did “nothing illegal,” which may be technically true but ignores the published and unchallenged fact that he participated in an activity which was a felony for someone involved), has a nice quote from Dr. Johnson:

Who is ruined by gaming? You will not find six instances in an age. There is a strange rout made about deep play: whereas you have many more people ruined by adventurous trade, and yet we do not hear such an outcry against it.

No doubt Johnson was wrong about gambling; the history of Britain (and America) might have been very different had Charles James Fox, for example, not bankrupted himself at the gaming tables, and it’s hard to believe that he was one of “six instances in an age.” But the good doctor was right about the other half of his proposition: people can, and do, apply the habits of addictive gamblers to business and to investment, and with similarly ruinous results.

As Tom Schelling pointed out many years ago, the biggest gambling enterprise by far is the stock market. The fact that the capital markets help make the economy run doesn’t change the fact that individual stock market investors are (in trading stocks rather than buying and holding index funds) fundamentally gambling, and that more than a few of them are gambling ruinously. Taking advice about stocks from your broker isn’t exactly like taking advice about horses from your bookie, but it’s close enough. And of course the financial pages of our newspapers depend for readership on stock market gamblers as much as the sports pages depend on sports gamblers, so they’re unlikely to call the problem out for what it is.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: