The Lord has mercy, I don’t

By Raffique Shah
July 29, 2007

GamblingPrime Minister Patrick Manning has spoken of the deleterious effects gambling has on individuals, families and ultimately the society as a whole. Like him, I have heard some chilling stories about casino gambling. If the PM was astounded by the amounts of money his friends throw away at crap (or whatever) tables at these establishments, he’d be horrified to learn that some people are so addicted to gambling that they sometimes spend sleepless days and nights trying to beat “the house”. Worse, casinos are not averse to ensnaring such fools in debt traps that could ultimately lead to strong-arm measures to recover what is owed, or to gamblers losing their worldly possessions as a result of their greed.

Because greed is what ultimately drives gambling, much the way it spawns the many scams (pyramids, ghost Lotto winners, etc.) that have multiplied with the advent of the World Wide Web. People always want something for nothing. I recall when, in the 1980s, the “pyramid scheme” hit this country like a hurricane, many supposedly sensible people got caught in its web, vowing it was the greatest wealth generator ever invented. A few smartmen did make much money off it. But tens of thousands more lost substantial sums of money chasing the elusive pot of gold. Within a few months, when the “pyramids” collapsed, as they were bound to, the losers could not believe their rank stupidity.

I need to remind the PM, though, that it was his administration of 1991-95 that introduced the country to on-line gambling-Play Whe, Lotto, Pick-2 and all that followed. At the time, I distinctly recall writing that Manning would live to rue the day he fell for this form of indirect taxation that was sweeping the world. Many of his then ministers scoffed at my suggestion and even laughed at my “innocence”. Online gaming, they argued, would generate considerable revenues for the government, and make a few millionaires among ordinary people.

The National Lottery was also introduced to the country by a previous PNM government.

As an addendum to the above, the newspaper at which I was managing editor at the time wanted to join the rush to “pick winning numbers”, which every other newspaper fell victim to. I bucked it successfully, arguing that if someone could predict the winning Play Whe or Lotto numbers, why the hell would he or she share it with others? Why not hog all the winnings? One such “Play Whe guru” told me he was paid for putting any number or numbers that came to his head…and stupid editors and gamblers fell for them.

Unlike Manning’s about-turn, which I suspect came about because of his born-again Christian beliefs, my stand against gambling came from sober, logical thinking, not from fear of God or any moral position. It did not take genius to work out that in any form of gambling, most “punters” lose, very few win, with the biggest winner being the “casa” or “house”. In any event, who am I to dictate on morals to others when I am not without sin? Mine was an appeal to the State for its non-involvement in what is nothing short of a scam.

Nothing that I have written here is intended to dissuade those who swear by gambling, people who, driven by greed or stupidity, would fall for any two-by-two scam. Gambling is probably older than prostitution: in the Bible, reference is made to both, and I feel certain both existed long before Christ walked the earth. Closing casinos and putting an end to online games will not put an end to gambling. Those who are addicted to wagering big money on the flick-of-a-card would continue to do that, be it in dingy backrooms or well-appointed mansions. The once-popular “Whe Whe” would return with a vengeance, just as prostitution will prosper, police raids notwithstanding. One cannot legislate morality. Nor should one penalise people for immoral acts that do not adversely affect others. A fool and his money will part any which way, just as “sex workers” will thrive everywhere in the world, HIV and AIDS being of little concern to them.

When, however, governments, trade unions, NGOs and business organisations lend legitimacy to activities that thrive on human weaknesses, these bodies must be put under scrutiny. It is one thing for an individual to make a fool of himself, which he is entitled to do. It’s quite another for institutions, especially those that are charged with the responsibility of looking after the welfare of citizens, to lead them instead to self-destruct through schemes like gambling. I look on with disgust as supposedly upstanding people in society, leaders if you will, opportunistically defend the indefensible.

The only caveat I would add, if I had my way, is that people who lose their pants (and many women gamblers, their drawers) must have no recourse to state welfare. If they become vagrants by folly, then let them remain vagrants. And those who contract HIV through recklessness must face the Grim Reaper rather than access taxpayer-funded, very expensive medications. The Lord has mercy. I don’t.

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