Two Ways News is a weekly collaboration between Tony Payne and Phillip Jensen – a newsletter and podcast on a topic to encourage gospel thinking for today (subscribe at twoways.news).
A gamble not worth taking
Tony Payne: Can you give us a definition of gambling?
Phillip Jensen: Yes, well, I’ll do the negative definition first. Gambling is not just taking risk, although you can use the word to mean taking risk. But specifically, gambling is a game of chance aimed at money, which plays for money. It can be a game of skill, but the aim is for making money.
TP: At the moment, the government’s aim is to reduce the harm that gambling brings. Do you think that minimizing that harm is something that Christians should be supporting?
PJ: Well, poker machines are terribly harmful to the individual and to the society. There can be very little doubt about it; the statistical information is so overwhelming. Poker machines are where people lose millions, in fact, billions of dollars. And that means that there are some people who are suffering greatly in terms of their own life, and worse, in terms of their family life. The children of gamblers have a terrible life because the family income and the family wealth keeps on evaporating.
Poker machines are designed to take all your money away from you. The longer you play the poker machine, the more money you lose—it’s as simple as that. They’re geared only to return a small percentage. If you take that small percentage and put it in again, it’ll be a smaller percentage of that percentage, and it takes it all in the end. And so it’s like a voluntary taxation system.
And these machines are designed to be addictive. You don’t have to understand much of Pavlovian psychology to realize that the operant conditioning process that they are using will addict people to spend hours upon hours losing their money on these dreadful machines. It’s also now been discovered, to the horror of the government, that money launderers are using poker machines to launder millions of dollars.
So it’s a massive problem. And when you look at the distribution of poker machines in Sydney, it’s in the poorest of suburbs that the vast number of poker machines are. And for those listeners from overseas or interstate, our state (New South Wales) has one of the highest per capita rates of poker machines in the world. There are other places like Nevada (basically Las Vegas), which have more, but if you do away with the places that are actually set up for gambling, NSW is top of the list.
TP: What is the history of these machines?
PJ: Well, as far back as the 1890s, they had poker machines, but they were almost like a novelty in those times because they were not allowed to be used. You put in tokens, and if you won, you’d get a cigar or two cigars. So if you got the big payout, you’d be given 50 cigars. So you were not actually technically making money from the poker machines.
TP: (I wonder if that’s where we get our expression, “Sorry, no cigar”?)
PJ: After the Second World War, voluntary community clubs were a very important part of social cohesion—as the society reconstructed itself after the depression and two world wars. With the need to fund these expanding clubs, and with growing wealth in the 1950s, the government in 1956 allowed poker machines into not-for-profit community clubs. And then suddenly the clubs boomed. They became fabulously wealthy. And the argument was, well, the profits from the machines are not going elsewhere; the profits are going back into the community, and also in terms of taxation to the state government, and so the state government liked it.
The clubs became addicted to these machines because all their programs depended upon taking money from the poor problem gamblers. And the government took so much taxation from them, and also had these clubs doing so much service work for them, that the government became addicted to it as well. And the politicians became addicted because the hundreds of thousands of club members were called upon to tell the politicians not to touch poker machines, because they would vote against any party that was going to in any way restrict poker machines. And so the society as a whole became addicted to these dreadful machines. Some people suffered appallingly as a result of it. Suicides. But that was the reality. As people’s families were broken up, as people moved into criminality because of it, as lives and children were ruined by it, it was a disaster.
This is the trouble with utilitarianism—you make a change in society and you do not know the consequence for a generation or two, by which time the addiction is so heavy, you can’t get back to where you were beforehand. This is a classic example of the hopelessness of utilitarianism as a way of making moral, political or social decisions, because the evidence is not seen until after the damage has been done. And now that it has been done, we–including political parties–are all beginning to see that actually, we need to rein this in.
TP: Two things struck me from what you’re saying. The first is that as a culture, because of our abandonment of any objective or absolute morality, we won’t accept that there are some things that are just true and good in and of themselves—such that we might say gambling, in and of itself, is an unhelpful or harmful or morally unacceptable activity. And so having abandoned any objective morality in our decision making, we fall back on utilitarianism, as you’ve said. The only way we can judge whether this is something good to do or not is whether or not it’s going to produce good consequences. But of course, we just don’t know.
PJ: Yes, that’s right. And in a sense, it was always obvious that introducing poker machines was going to have bad effects. But until research has shown us that years down the track, we simply don’t believe the blindingly obvious. Gambling has always been there. Gambling has always corrupted sporting events. Gambling has always impoverished people. Gambling is always, by definition, antisocial and unloving. You don’t really need to have much research to work out it’s going to go badly.
One of the bizarre stupidities was that by the 1990s, the pubs were being undermined by the clubs. Because the clubs had poker machines, they had more money to provide better facilities and cheaper meals than the hotels, which couldn’t compete with them. And so pubs were threatened with going out of business. So their solution was very simple, of course: put poker machines into pubs. And that just increases the problem. It massively expanded the problem from the 1990s onwards, because now in every club and every pub in New South Wales, there are poker machines.
TP: And that was the second thing that struck me from what you were saying. It’s a really deep and endemic problem. It’s now knitted into the whole fabric of how our society and economy works. The government would collapse without the gaming revenue; the clubs and the pubs would collapse without the gaming revenue. And so even though we’re talking about harm minimization and trying to reduce the problems in people’s lives, we’ve reached a point where doing what perhaps needs to be done–which is abolishing poker machines or making these things illegal–is almost impossible.
PJ: Yes. And the crazy part is it needn’t have happened. Western Australia never took them on. I mean, there are gaming machines in Western Australia in one place only: that is in the casino. But apart from that they don’t have any and they’ve survived. And Singapore did the same. Singapore made very great restrictions about their one casino that visitors can go to but locals can’t because Lee Kuan Yew saw the damage that the gambling does. You will never actually stop gambling. You can’t just stop people betting over which fly is going to go up the wall faster than the other. But legitimizing it has expanded it unhelpfully, and always will.
TP: So there’s an even deeper problem. The intricate nature of how gambling and poker machines are bedded into our society makes it so difficult to unwind at this point—but also, at a deeper level, you can’t legislate away sin.
PJ: The only way to get rid of poker machines would be by compensating those pubs and clubs who rely on that income and who bought them and paid license fees for them and all the rest of it. You know, that is a dreadful thing to be doing, too, isn’t it? What is politically possible? We should never have opened this door. Having opened the door, the horse has bolted, and now it’s impossible to shut it.
So what the government is doing is seeking to minimize its damage. They’re talking about using cards instead of money, putting limits on how much a person can put on their card each week and so forth; basically self limiting. I’m praying their plans are good and their program works. What they’re trying to do is as much as the government can do, because in the end the government cannot remove sinfulness.
TP: Implicit in all that we’ve been saying is that are Christians anti-gambling, but let’s explore why. What is it about being involved in games of skill or chance for the making of money that is ungodly?
PJ: Because it doesn’t love my neighbor. The two great commandment are to love God and love your neighbor. Gambling is a fundamentally unloving activity, because what I’m trying to do is get your money. You can kind of institutionalize it and say, “No, no, I’m not trying to get your money. I’m trying to get money from the TAB, or the betting shop, or the club.” But of course, where did they get their money from? They got it from you and your neighbour. I’m still trying to get it from you.
But it’s also because of the 10th commandment: You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, your neighbor’s house, or anything else of your neighbour’s. We mustn’t live in covetousness. Gambling is fundamental covetousness, desiring to get what is not mine, and not work for what is not mine.
You see, work is a different thing. I am doing something for you. You are doing something for me. That is why I pay you for mowing my grass. That is why you pay me for painting your house. We’re paying for a service that has been given. But gambling is not that. This is me trying to take yours and you trying to take mine. Of course you can say but it’s consensual, as if giving consent is the ultimate pinnacle of morality. Frankly, it’s about the pinnacle of pagan morality. And that is how pathetic the whole thing is. But in terms of gambling consent, the fact that you consent to be stupid does not give me the right to stop loving you. In fact, the fact that you are so slow witted as to be willing to gamble on a hopeless case such as poker machines, that means you are a vulnerable person that I really should take extra care to love and to protect from such stupidity.
TP: One of the practical areas that often confronts us as Christians in this whole area is schools, where quite frequently the way of raising money is to have some kind of raffle. (I grew up in a Catholic school where the annual carnival we had every year to raise money for the school was one big gamble-a-thon, with chocolate wheels and everything.) It’s still in many of our schools, so how do we as Christian parents respond when our kid comes home with raffle tickets?
PJ: Yes, while my children were at school a long time ago, I was always in the Parents and Citizens club. And every time the raffle came up, I protested. Every time, I said, “I will make a donation equal to a book of raffle tickets. But I will not take the raffle tickets because I think that is educationally disastrous.” Instead of teaching my children to be generous by getting them to give some money into the common purse of the school–which I was happy to do, as parents should be happy to do–I was teaching my children that the only way to make a donation to the school was in the hope of winning a raffle, of winning money. I was teaching children that gambling was perfectly all right, and denying them the opportunity of hearing that generosity is all right. And so I always protested, and over the seven years I was on the P&C. Not once did I win.
TP: I suspect my kids thought I was a bit weird to oppose the raffle tickets, when I gave my annual lecture about gambling and raffle tickets. But that’s what parents have to do. You have to teach; you have to run against the tide of what everyone else is doing. And it kind of connects with our conversation about education a couple of weeks ago, doesn’t it?
PJ: Yes. And it’s an important part of education that my children learn that we are different, that we are not just part of this pagan society, that we stand for values and morals and attitudes. But I did have to protect the children a little bit through the P&C, making sure that my children were not singled out for any kind of discriminatory behavior or attitudes expressed by the teachers as they gave out raffle tickets. I think a child needs a bit of defense from their parents in this regard.
TP: This might be a good point to draw this conversation to a close. Would you like to summarize where we’ve come to and what you think we should do as Christians in response to gambling?
PJ: I think we should be voting for any government that is trying to minimize the harm of gambling, and hope that whatever mechanisms they have in mind will in fact, minimize the harm.
But secondly, I think it’s really important to understand that harm minimization is just an expression of the frailty and inability of the government to really do the work of teaching the ways of God, or of implementing the ways of God or in any way restricting the sinfulness of humanity.
And thirdly, it is so important for Christians to have a morality, ethics and way of life that is dramatically different to society. It’s called holiness. We live differently and expect to live differently.
And fourthly, we should be loving our neighbour and not loving money, whereas gambling always involves not loving my neighbour and loving money. So we must never participate or encourage or allow it to be seen that gambling is in any way a good thing, rather than just what it is: plain old fashioned sin.