Gambling revisited

The eroticism of risk is the essence of gambling.  We all take risks – with our health, our money, our reputations, and sometimes even with our sanity.  The question is whether, and to what extent, we want the State to protect us from our folly.  That is one issue.

The other issue has to do with the uses of gambling profits.  This has nothing to do with gambling as such.  It has rather to do with the legal and moral use of excess wealth.  Big-time gambling operators tend to accumulate large amounts of excess wealth, with which they corrupt public officials and buy political and social influence.

It is useful to separate these two issues when we consider the case of jueteng and other popular illegal games of chance that have proliferated in our society.  The fact is that nothing much distinguishes these from casino gambling and lottery that the government itself sponsors and promotes in the name of tourism and public charity.  The difference is that the latter is taxed and the former is not.

Some claim that in jueteng the risks are loaded so much against the bettors, who are typically the very poor in our society, that we have a case here of the deceitful taking advantage of the gullible. That may be true, but that is also a matter of perception and is relative to the kinds of needs and expectations that a gambler brings to the game. At any rate, it is an argument for regulation and not a reason for outright prohibition.  A government that allows the rich to enjoy themselves at the casinos cannot command the moral right to prevent the poor from having their thrills with jueteng.

The big problem with jueteng stems from the astounding magnitude of untaxed wealth that its shrewd operators appear to accumulate. This money, as we all know, is used to buy the silence of lawenforcers, lawmakers, administrators, and even of the moral shepherds in our communities.  The financial muscle it gives to some favored candidates has become a decisive factor in electoral outcomes.  But then this is not peculiar to jueteng.  It is a quality it shares with many other illegal activities – e.g. drug trafficking, smuggling, prostitution, and indeed with almost every enterprise that profits from the illegal, thrives on political protection, and does not pay taxes.  Despite its relative visibility, jueteng money is surely not the most important reason why we elect bad leaders.

We cannot say jueteng is more injurious to the wellbeing of the average Filipino than drugs, kidnapping, and white slavery.  Neither can we say that the money derived from it is more pernicious in its uses than the resources amassed by drug lords.  Yet, for a host of reasons, our attention is riveted on jueteng and our government’s historic inability to crush it.   The persistence of jueteng has become for us a symbol of our inability to craft and uphold public policy, and indeed, to enforce the law.  The equation is such that many thoughtful Filipinos believe that if we cannot stop jueteng, there is no reason why we can hope to control the more harmful menace of illegal drugs.

Because it succeeded a presidency that was brought down precisely on account of its ties to gambling syndicates, we have come to expect a little more from the Arroyo government in its drive against jueteng.  The present government is hard-pressed to show it is the opposite of its predecessor, especially because, more and more, the public is unable to tell where the difference lies.

Like the bankrupt Estrada presidency it replaced, the Arroyo administration has tended to go for random actions with high media visibility than for sustained and quiet work in dealing with stubborn social problems.  You cannot fight jueteng that way.  Like drug trafficking and other illegal activities, jueteng will always find a way to make itself useful to the system that threatens its existence.

That said, I do not subscribe to the view that jueteng is so embedded in our culture that it is impossible to eradicate it.  This is nonsense. We can eliminate jueteng if we want to, but we must begin with a resolute policy toward gambling that will end the ambiguity that presently characterizes official attitude.  Either we legalize gambling or we don’t allow it.  If we license casinos, we have no reason not to license jueteng operators.

But if we decide to fight jueteng, I suggest that we cannot be effective in this campaign if we continue to issue permits that allow casinos and lotto stations to operate. Let us not complicate the discussion by bringing in the question of incidental social benefits.  Legalized gambling is often justified by referring to the various charities and social projects it supports and the number of tourists it attracts. But jueteng advocates also defend jueteng by drawing attention to the livelihood it gives to many poor people.  The correct approach, I believe, is to decide, from the standpoint of our long-term national goals, whether we think gambling is intrinsically wrong or whether it is by itself neutral.  Needless to say, we must draw a line between organized gambling and the occasional pursuit of diversion at a family gaming table.

Personally, I do not hold any strong feelings for or against gambling, except where it concerns minors.  I believe children should be protected from the damaging effects of the gambling habit.  This is why I think the State sets the wrong example for its citizens, especially its young people, when it takes on the running of casinos as a government function.


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