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The Economist’s website is hosting a debate on the legality of gambling. While both those in favour and against make interesting points, Radley Balko’s approval of legal gambling is most compelling.

Balko points out that criminalizing consensual activities does little to stop the actual acts. People like to gamble and bet. Whether it is an informal wager with friends or blackjack at the casino, it’s inevitable. People take value out of betting whether it’s to a healthy extent or not. Companies that “exploit” the so-called sick and twisted addictive lifestyle of gamblers are really no different that any other company. Groceries, after all, exploit our most basic need for survival. Moreover, when we are starving from not eating all day, we exploit Tesco by paying only a few pounds for a very valuable (to us) meal. The idea of exploitation is misleading, especially when applied to emotionally loaded topics such as gambling.

There is also no external harm in gambling. In private gambling firms, no one outside the transaction is harmed. Dissenters may cite the harm to families and friends of the gamblers. There is no denying that addictive gambling can ruin relationships. Many things can do this. Drinking, depression, illness, etc can break a home and hurt loved ones. Very few argue for prohibition of alcohol, or punishing unhealthy lifestyles. Why should gambling be different?

Balko also points out that a heavily regulated gambling industry is more dangerous than gambling in a free market. Not only does it put tax dollars to waste, it ruins competition in the industry. Gambling may have no virtue, but there’s no need to criminalize it. The UK luckily has a relatively liberal approach to most breeds of gambling. The fundamental issue here, as Balko argues, is the encroachment on personal liberty.