In Pennsylvania, liquor privatization grabs the headlines. A bill is winding its way through the state legislature that would privatize the commonwealth’s monopoly on the retail sales of wine and spirits. Passage would result in an historic change in Pennsylvania consumers’ experiences and habits in purchasing alcohol.
Another less celebrated “privatization” proposal, however, promises an even greater impact on Pennsylvanians. Governor Tom Corbett (R), amid charges of opaqueness and political patronage, has asserted executive authority to outsource management of the Pennsylvania Lottery to Camelot Gaming, a British firm. Essential to the proposal is the expansion of traditional lottery offerings, and the introduction of a novelty: video keno.
Keno is a relatively simple numbers-based lottery game. Players select a collection of numbers from 1 to 80, and then the game pulls out 20 numbers from that range. Payouts are based on the likelihood that the chosen numbers will match the player’s selections.
The traditional form of the game popular at casinos is live keno, in which winning numbers are selected at regular intervals, usually once every 5 to 20 minutes. It is a slow-paced game that can be played simultaneously with others. Video keno, on the other hand, can be set up to coordinate with regular drawings (usually at 5 minute intervals), but most commonly it is subject to no limitations but the will and ability of the player.
According to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the governor’s proposal would facilitate the slower-paced video game at first. Yet experience of other states (and the history of gambling expansion in Pennsylvania) indicates that the player-driven game is inevitable. The game presents the opportunity for swift, massive losses—the house edge is as high as 12 percent, and the game can be played a dozen times per minute. It is this perpetual lottery that I will consider here.
The video keno proposal validates the most cynical notions about Republican policies and politicians held by the electorate that rejected the party in November. Video keno supercharges the lottery, raising money for bureaucratic programs on the backs of precisely those whom those programs are designed to support. Moreover, video keno is a uniquely socially corrosive and alienating form of gaming—one that seems almost tailor-made to accelerate the atomization of society and the growth of the state.
We mustn’t be timid about describing keno accurately: It is a tremendous and highly-regressive tax largely on the lower and working classes. Faced with a state budget increasingly difficult to balance, the governor has discerned that revenue to Pennsylvania’s treasury needs to increase. Rather than making a public case for taxes, fees, or some other traditional form of revenue generation, he has selected this backdoor mechanism.
Keno offends neither the donors and other establishment supporters whose wealth insulates them from the temptation of the game, nor the bitter ideologues who track down “tax raisers” with a zeal that would embarrass Torquemada. Moreover, the proposal appeals to libertarians of all stripes who bizarrely see freedom in a fresh government monopoly. It is, to the establishment Republican mind, the perfect revenue generation mechanism. But it also bolsters criticisms of the party that allege a greater concern for the vested interests of the rich and powerful than the quotidian struggles of the middle and working classes.
More than that, video keno would place electronic agents of state revenue collection in corner bars and chain restaurants across Pennsylvania. This is well beyond local health regulations or even state alcohol regulations; this is the tentacles of Leviathan using local establishments to feed its insatiable appetite for our dollars. It is the co-opting of one of the foundational institutions of free civil society: the bar.
The keno proposal raises weighty considerations of justice, but this social corrosiveness militates just as strongly against it. The bar—whether the family-owned neighborhood establishment or the suburban chain—is a primary locus of American society; it is where communities come together, friendships are made, plans are hatched, and disputes are settled (and sometimes commenced). It is defined by its penchant for fostering sociability. The solitary man at the bar (think distraught George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life) is our cultural motif for lonely despair.
Now consider video keno, which isolates the player in a tiny universe, where all that exists is the player, the machine, and the fleeting-though-intoxicating thrill of the game. The game is to be a commonplace in bars across Pennsylvania, and yet it is the antithesis of the organic social atmosphere of the bar; it is a temptation to recede from the world to a domain of private pleasures. In all of these respects—ubiquity, instant gratification, social alienation—video keno reminds one of nothing so much as internet pornography.
In the final National Gambling Research Study Commission (NGRSC) report to Congress, Las Vegas clinical psychologist and gambling specialist Robert Hunter is quoted as describing this type of gaming as “the distilled essence” and “the crack-cocaine of gambling.” According to Hunter, players “escape into the machine and make the world go away. It’s like a trip to the Twilight Zone.” In Pennsylvania’s biggest competitor for gambling dollars, West Virginia, video keno accounts for two-thirds of calls to the Problem Gamblers Help Network of West Virginia, whose representative explains: “Our callers often say they're trying to forget about something negative in life. They're in a zone when they play.”
This experience is not freedom; it is bondage masquerading as freedom. The proposal is more than that; it is the state exploiting this misapprehension, building a lucrative monopoly for itself upon the despair and escapism of its citizens. Make no mistake about it: The success of the program depends on enticing as many players as possible to that Twilight Zone where all that exists and matters is oneself and the screen glowing with possibility.
But what is that possibility? In what—or in whom—is that player placing his hope for financial salvation? Into whose arms does the player lunge to escape from despair? Not the family, or the neighborhood, or the church, or any other organic community or structure of civil society, but the state! It is a microcosm of the civilizational trend described by Robert Nisbet in his classic The Quest for Community: the alienation of the individual from intermediary social institutions, whose social and economic functions are centralized in the omnicompetent state.
Keno preys on the powerless. It is an overwhelmingly cynical attempt to tap into the hope that Lady Luck will deliver a payday—necessarily more common among the lower classes, the unemployed, and those on fixed incomes—in order to make a buck for the Harrisburg bureaucracy. In so doing, the game perpetuates cycles of poverty and government dependency that ought to be anathema to conservatives and libertarians alike.
And yet those of a libertarian bent will recoil at the basis for that last paragraph. How dare I patronize the poor by suggesting that they lack agency? How dare I imply that I know better than another how one’s money should be spent?
Here, I ask for an honest engagement with reality. Unshackled liberty is not a resource that is evenly distributed in our society. It is easy for one who has never experienced privation to wax poetic about the freedom to put one’s private resources to use in whatever way one sees fit. To such fortunate people, keno is seen with clarity as low-stakes entertainment at best, idiotic pastime at worst.
But to one who is beset by financial responsibilities he cannot meet, whether due to negligence and sloth or misfortune and structural injustice, that clarity is obscured by anxiety, despair, and duty. To an unemployed father who cannot make rent, taking a stab at a jackpot might seem to be not just a sensible option, but a moral obligation. Which is to say: Freedom—especially financial freedom—is not an abstract concept that can be considered apart from the realities of our society and economy.
It is not an attack on rationality, agency, or freedom to comprehend and grapple with structural constraints on those concepts in practice. We know that lottery expansion and keno in particular will attract those who can least afford the games. That fact cannot be made to disappear with a blithe appeal to “individual liberty”; we must consider it an essential aspect of the proposal as public policy.
The libertarian account further fails to cope with the reality of addiction. The NGSRC found that gambling addiction disproportionately affects the poor, the uneducated, and black Americans. The effects of gambling addiction ripple through the family and community, both financially (it puts at risk more resources than other forms of addiction, such as substance abuse) and socially (it is associated with divorce and abuse, and
generally cultivates anger and distrust). Moreover, the proposed keno program is peculiarly suited to fostering addiction due to its ubiquity, delivery of instant gratification, and alienating tendencies.
These factors combine to make lottery expansion the “biggest government” way to raise money. In introducing keno, the state sets up an alternative path to financial security—ultimately a teasing mirage—other than the dynamism of the market or the solidarity of the family and community. The game is a government monopoly that entices the economically vulnerable out of the market and onto the dole, increasing the demand for funds that keno was meant to fulfill to begin with. It is a vicious positive feedback loop.
And so not only does Gov. Corbett’s proposal reinforce cycles of privation and dependency that he and his party in theory despise, but more abstractly it is a significant expansion of the state’s imperial maneuvers against the institutions of civil society that limit its scope and power. Video keno targets those for whom the organic structures of society are most important, but for whom the allure of the state is most magnetic, and introduces yet another terribly appealing temptation to rend social bonds and embrace the state.
Against a clear-eyed assessment of Pennsylvania’s video keno proposal, appeals to personal liberty are misguided and trite. There is no right to lose oneself in a game of chance for the state’s benefit, and more than that there is no good in it. Video keno enhances neither liberty nor virtue; it contracts both while abetting the state’s accelerating colonization of civil society.
Brandon McGinley is the field director for the Pennsylvania Family Institute.