Going after Jueteng

Watching the ongoing jueteng investigation in Congress, a friend asked: what do you think is the game plan?  Like most everybody else, he was thoroughly skeptical about the public motives that inform the investigation, and was searching for a hidden agenda that would account for this sudden militancy in law enforcement.  He could not believe that the point of this entire exercise was simply to uphold the law against illegal gambling, or to expose the entire system that allows it to flourish.

There may not be any hidden motive or agenda.  But any government investigation of jueteng must confront this skepticism.  Previous campaigns against jueteng have been episodic, having no relation to one another.  They are initiated with great flamboyance aimed at attracting maximum media attention.  Hearings are quietly discontinued, but they are never ended conclusively.  The  public is keen to know how this particular episode will end, but it  is doubtful that enough public outrage can be marshaled to sustain any lasting interest in the current investigation.

There are other reasons why, outside of the religious community, jueteng does not excite the kind of moral revulsion that a resolute campaign against it would require.  At the level of the average bettor, the amounts involved appear so insignificant it is safe to assume they are part of  disposable income.  We do not hear of lives being permanently injured by massive jueteng losses.  But we have heard of suicides induced by massive stock market and families destroyed by casino losses.

Ordinary people who regularly place jueteng bets speak of it as their only “libangan” or pastime.  For better or for worse, jueteng encourages them to listen more carefully to the messages of their dreams even if the intent is nothing more sublime than to draw numerical values from these.  In  castelike societies like ours, which permit little mobility across classes,  we may even say that  jueteng — like sweepstakes and lotto — gives the underclasses reason to hope, no matter how foolish this might be.

It seems obvious that only a few Filipinos regard jueteng as immoral or socially harmful.  Therefore, the reason for declaring it illegal remains ambiguous in the public mind, especially in the light of the governmentsponsored lottery sweepstakes.  Indeed the moral warrant of the public policy banning jueteng has become even more tenuous with the government’s decision to operate casinos and, more recently, the lotto.

I do not think it is sufficient justification to say that proceeds from sweepstakes, lotto and the casinos go to social welfare programs.  Jueteng lords can and do claim equal generosity.  In some provinces, their private altruism is far more visible than public welfare programs.  They will even say they are contributing to the campaign against crime by supplementing the incomes of underpaid police officers.

The philosophy of sponsoring one form of gambling while banning another must be satisfactorily explained, if the myth of the law as a rational and morally logical  instrument, “rather than a psychological adjustment to conflicting emotional needs,”  is to be sustained.  As Thurman W. Arnold put it: “The success of the law as a unifying force depends on making emotionally significant the idea of a government of law which is rational and scientific.”

The moment a government allows gambling in some form, I think it loses the moral warrant to object to it in other forms.  Its functions after that become purely regulatory, that is, to see to it that it is not done in excess, the betting public is adequately protected, the operators are properly identified and held responsible, and taxes are duly paid.

Having permitted lotto,  the government cannot object to jueteng on moral grounds anymore.  Neither can it object to it on purely legal grounds, for then the solution would be simply to lift the prohibition and allow the jueteng operators to conduct the game under the terms and full scrutiny of the law.

But the government wants to stamp it out.  Why?  Congressman Teodulo Natividad claims it is a racket, a dishonest scheme where the winning numbers are chosen not randomly but manipulatively.  He may be right, but in that case the  solution would be to institute safeguards, as they did with the sweepstakes not too long ago when they became suspect, rather than prohibit the game altogether.

I am not arguing for the legalization of jueteng.  At this point I don’t know which is better: allowing jueteng or eradicating it along with lotto. That should be the subject of a careful policy study.    I am simply saying that the government has so far not provided the public with an adequate and convincing defense that would persuade the nation that jueteng is wrong but lotto is right.

The absence of such a proper  account is fertile ground for all kinds of speculation about game plans hidden behind the current jueteng hearings in Congress.  Are the jueteng lords being lined up for campaign contributions for the 1998 election?  Is a loyalty check being undertaken?  Are some jueteng lords who funded the wrong candidates in the last election being taught a lesson?   Have some of them become so powerful and so interventionist that politicians think it is high time their wings were clipped?

Sociologists say that an exhaustive analysis must  explain  not just why people break the law, but  how and why the law is enforced.  Conformity is just as problematic as deviance.  And nowhere is this more true than in situations where, after  a long period of unremitting tolerance of violations, somebody suddenly remembers to enforce the law.


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