Vice Squad
Wednesday, October 27, 2004
What Did John Stuart Mill Say About Gambling?

Believe it or not, the debate about the new British gambling bill has spilled over into what position Vice Squad hero John Stuart Mill would have taken on the matter. Roy Hattersley, British Labour Party politician of renown (and now a Baron), claims in this Guardian column that Mill would not approve of the gambling liberalisation, but his reading of Mill is hopelessly muddled. Regarding the Blair government's move to liberalise gambling, combined with the government's refusal to push for a national public smoking ban, Hattersley asks (rhetorically?), "Can anyone doubt that if the full Mill doctrine were applied to either of the 'libertarian issues' that now face society, the policy the government has adopted would be reversed?" Uh, actually, yes, one can doubt this, and I do.

First, second-hand smoke and gambling are quite different, in that second-hand smoke can more-or-less directly harm identifiable individuals. Gambling lacks the same direct threat, though of course, as Mill notes, any activity that harms a person will also harm his family and intimates. But Mill makes it clear that this type of indirect harm does not provide a basis for social (public or private) coercion. The activity of gambling itself, therefore, must be legal, by Millian precepts. Regulation over public smoking would not necessarily be an infringement upon liberty, alternatively, though a key consideration will be the extent to which the exposure is voluntary. But I'll skip the smoking discussion to concentrate, here, on gambling.

Two subsequent letters to the Guardian correctly pointed out Hattersley's misappropriation of Mill. But neither of the letters referred to Mill's actual use of the example of gambling, in Part V of On Liberty. Mill addresses the issue of whether people should be allowed to earn a living by providing opportunities for other people to engage in, essentially, vices, such as prostitution or gambling. People who do not have an interest in the trade can "promote" a vice to their heart's desire, but what about people who have a pecuniary interest in intemperance?
Then, indeed, a new element of complication is introduced; namely, the existence of classes of persons with an interest opposed to what is considered as the public weal, and whose mode of living is grounded on the counteraction of it. Ought this to be interfered with, or not? Fornication, for example, must be tolerated, and so must gambling; but should a person be free to be a pimp, or to keep a gambling-house? The case is one of those which lie on the exact boundary line between two principles, and it is not at once apparent to which of the two it properly belongs. There are arguments on both sides...
Mill then runs through these arguments. If interested sellers are all-but-necessary for consumption to take place, then such sellers cannot be suppressed. (Mill believes that alcohol sellers are necessary to protect the liberty interest of would-be alcohol consumers.) But this reasoning does not extend to the gambling liberalisation bill. First, lots of gambling could occur in private homes (and the state has no right to stop it), even without commercial casinos. But in the British case, commercial casinos already exist; while the liberalisation would make them more widespread and larger, current laws do not preclude gambling, or even commercial gambling, for British adults. So by my reading, there is not much in On Liberty to suggest that respect for liberty requires support for the proposed gambling liberalisation. The bill might be a good idea for other reasons, but it is not required, upon Millian grounds alone.

The gambling/Mill controversy was brought to my attention by the Adam Smith Institute, whose President, Dr. Madsen Pirie, is one of the participants (an instigator, even!) in the debate.

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