The libertarian view of gambling often digresses into simply a denunciation of all things government. In this view, no government has the proper authority to make it illegal to gamble at a racetrack, on a baseball game, at a land-based casino, or at a casino online. However, the arguments for or against gambling are a lot more complicated than simple denunciations of government interference.
A law was passed in 1992 without much debate. It was a rider added to a much larger bill that President Bush could not veto. It isnt clear if he even knew that the sports betting attachment had been affixed to the larger bill. PASPA made it illegal to place and to accept sports bets in the United States except in four states where it was already legal. Nevada was one of those states and legal sports betting has flourished there for 25 years.
The default libertarian position on sports betting and on PASPA is that the government has no legitimate role in our lives including in areas that may cause us to do damage to ourselves, such as gambling. The libertarian view is that the constitutionality of PASPA, which are the grounds upon which New Jersey has appealed the law and has placed it before the Supreme Court, is irrelevant. That is, even if the constitution allows Congress to restrict sports betting, it shouldnt do so.
A Priori Against Regulation
There is a well-known construct of arguments against fiat government regulation of peoples lives. The default construct is that no individual can possibly know what is best for even one other person. We have enough trouble trying to figure out what is best for us. There cannot possibly be a cohort of experts who know better than we do about whats best for us and certainly not whats best for hundreds of millions of people.
This argument is satisfying when we are talking about those areas of life that really are individual and not complicated by overlapping interests. Gambling is an issue that has many overlapping interests. Before we get to gambling lets look at two issues that have discernible overlapping interests and lets see if the government might have a role in these areas.
Most states or local jurisdictions have laws that require motorcyclists and bicycle riders to wear a helmet when they ride. The similar legislation requires that all passengers be ensconced in a seatbelt while in a car. William F. Buckley Jr. argued against the helmet law back in the 1960s but the law has stuck with little resistance.
As libertarians, we can say that the government should leave us alone and let us ride our vehicles or as passengers strapped in or not, helmeted or not. But there is a very substantial overlapping interest. In addition to our own safety which should reasonably be in our own hands, there is the long-term interest of the fool who drove his car under the influence of alcohol or simply drove it too fast and killed a bicyclist or motorcyclist.
For that driver, being accused and found guilty of vehicular homicide is far worse than being found guilty of a lesser crime. The difference is where he spends the rest of his life. We can submit that in the interest of safety on the roads we have driving laws and in the interest of safeguarding the future of an irresponsible driver we have helmet laws and that the government has a legitimate interest in maintaining these laws.
We can argue that a chicken farmer can dispose of the feces those chickens produce on his land in any way that he sees fit. But what happens when those wastes make their way downstream and pollute the waterways of neighboring states or communities in the same state?
It might be argued that the interest of the chicken farmer to do what he will on his own land is greater than the interest of downstream communities to have clean water but it also seems that the reverse may very well be the better argument.
What Kind of Government?
If self-government fails to cause the best behavior in these and many other cases, does the elected government have the authority and responsibility to step in and legislate good behavior?
The simple argument is that its none of the governments business if we gamble on a sporting event or not. Just as we can legitimately argue that the government should not force us to buy a lottery ticket, so can we argue that the government has no legitimate cause to prevent us from buying a lottery ticket.
PASPA was passed to protect professional and amateur sports from being unduly influenced by gambling interests. The legal argument before the Supreme Court has nothing to do with the potential for harm to sports if PASPA is rescinded for constitutional reasons.
However, people who gamble too much harm others such as family members, the companies they work for, the people they rob to further their gambling, and by extension, all of society.
But gambling seems to be wired into our DNA. So, does an elected government have any interest in regulating gambling? To give the knee-jerk libertarian response of: of course, not! is not helpful.
Athletes, who have come to amateur sports as a way to escape the poverty of their youth, may be unduly influenced by the possibility of a large payday for missing a shot or making a bad pass. Such miscues are so common in sports that a well-orchestrated game-fixing scheme could succeed undetected.
Is our commitment to individual freedom at all costs so great that we cannot even see the real problem unregulated sports betting might entail?
Regulation Means Government
Libertarianism is the political philosophy of freedom-loving people everywhere. But just as there are 25,000 denominations within Christendom there are legitimately several strains of libertarianism. One strain certainly is willing to accept government regulation of sports betting in exchange for the legal freedom to engage in such betting.