The rationale articulated in a 2018 Supreme Court decision striking down the federal law that prevented states from regulating and taxing commercial sports betting could not have been clearer. “A more direct affront to state sovereignty is not easy to imagine,” Justice Samuel Alito wrote for the majority. “Congress can regulate sports gambling directly, but if it elects not to do so, each state is free to act on its own.” With that, Congress’s backdoor ban on state-level sports betting was no more. But while the constitutional propriety of this decision is sound, the gambling bonanza it created is not without its challenges. And it may reinvigorate—indeed, necessitate—a debate about the proper balance between freedom and responsibility.

Since that ruling, state after state has taken advantage of the new dispensation, and that trend is expected to accelerate this year. Tens of millions of Americans have wagered on the outcome of sporting events in what has become a multi-billion-dollar industry. Spectators are inundated with commercials advertising gambling, much of which is conducted by private enterprises, like casinos, though the state takes a cut of the action. But like all gambling, the game is not a fair one.

Prospective gamblers are sometimes tempted into the game by the promise of “risk-free” betting as a signup promotion; meaning that the house will cover your initial losses. But the only “risk-free” proposition here is the one in which the house is engaged. Like any game of chance, bettors will lose far more often than they win. Losing, not winning, is what makes gambling addictive.

Losing bets triggers in compulsive gamblers the desire to “chase” that wager with more or even larger wagers to recoup losses. The enticing promise of easy money soon gives way to the manic effort to merely break even. Though this may sound like torture to most, it is a stimulating experience for gambling addicts. “You can do a brain scan on someone using cocaine, and a scan on someone who spent the last 24 hours at a casino, and all the same parts of the brain are lit up,” said the Ohio Department of Mental Health’s Stacey Frohnapfel-Hasson.

A consequence of radical liberty is the risk that some people will indulge themselves to the point of self-destruction. Sports betting is no different.

“Being able to just sit in bed and go on my phone and gamble made it almost impossible to stop,” one sports betting addict told Vice’s Maxwell Strachan. “I could do everything you could do at a casino on my phone.” He confessed to burning through “a couple hundred thousand dollars” before joining Gamblers Anonymous, but he considers himself lucky compared to some of his compatriots in the program.

“Experts increasingly see the simultaneous rise of online sports betting, online casinos (legal or not), cryptocurrency trading, and day trading as the same root thing—gambling—with the same root issues,” Strachan’s report continued. About 40 percent of Americans between the ages of 18 and 44 engaged in some form of online gambling last year—nearly twice the number of Americans aged 45 to 54 who did the same. The personal and psychological toll on the growing number of young gambling addicts Strachan’s account details is hard to read, and it’s rendered that much harder by the vested interest the state has taken in their torment.

In New Jersey, the state that ushered in this new regime in the first place, revenue from sports betting is down by more than 8 percent in 2021. Even so, more than $860 million was wagered on sports via the Internet last year, with another $63 million in bets placed at retail sportsbooks. New Jersey took in roughly $100 million in tax revenue from the practice in 2021 alone. Illinois generated almost as much in tax revenue from legal sportsbooks since it was legalized in early 2020, while New York earned $267 million. It’s a perverse arrangement that creates incentives for the state to accept—even tacitly encourage—this crippling addiction.

Given the abject shallowness of our present political discourse, we have little reason to expect that this new set of distorted incentives will reignite a dormant debate over the importance of tempering the virtues of liberty with the forbearance and prudence that accompanies responsibility. But it should.

The Supreme Court was amply justified when it struck down a congressional effort to intervene in the state-level legislative process while pretending it had done nothing of the sort. The states and the enterprises therein are free to maximize the advantages provided by this new legal environment, and individuals can partake in these services if they so choose. But while it is outside the purview of government to prohibit access to gambling, should the state—and you, by extension—benefit from its promotion? And what are our individual and collective responsibilities to those whose injury sustains us?

Sports betting is only one of our recent national experiments in licensing addictive behaviors. New York City’s taxpayer-funded experiment with “safe sites,” where heroin users can slowly kill themselves with properly sterilize instruments and under proper medical supervision, is another. As an alternative to the failed war on drugs, making New Yorkers into passive collaborationists with a regime that encourages (indeed, extols the empowering virtues of) shooting up while observing best practices isn’t working.

At least New York’s judgement-free opiate-abuse zones are ostensibly designed to reduce the risks to the user. They are not, however, designed to minimize the risk to the societies in which they are situated, as California soundly affirmed with its governor’s decision to veto the establishment of such sites in the state. Gambling addiction, by contrast, doesn’t leave in its wake an army of highly visible and menacing zombies. Its consequences are hidden from view, and so we absorb the costs of this new licentiousness without fully apprehending the damage it is doing. But we are supporting it, and we are benefiting from it. What responsibility do we, therefore, share in our obligation to the afflicted?

We all have individual responsibilities. We either observe them or endure the consequences of their neglect. But a radical libertarian vision of social organization is blind to the fact that we are sometimes drafted into participating in a moral hazard. A radical libertarian vision of society also maintains that society must also preserve a robust “right of exit,” but where is the offramp for those who object to their compulsory participation in this morally compromised scheme? If you find one, let me know where I can get off.

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