If there's anything Utah does not need, it is for a little Las Vegas to rise up within its borders.
Why? Because once legalized gambling gets a toehold in just part of the state, it will generate pressure for the rest of the state to follow suit despite the crime, corruption, and waste that accompany gambling.Likewise, if there's anything that Indian reservations themselves do not need, it is to become outposts for lotteries, cash bingo, horse racing, and parimutuel betting.
Why? Because, unlike most other economic activities, gambling not only exploits human weakness but also creates nothing new or useful, diverting money and manpower that otherwise could be used productively.
Yet precisely the wrong results can be reaped if Stewart Pike of the Ute Tribal Council gets anywhere with his proposal to introduce gambling on the Utes' reservation in eastern Utah.
Up to a point, it's easy to sympathize with the impetus behind this proposal. After all, Indians throughout the country suffer from the most grinding poverty of any group in America. That means not only the highest unemployment and lowest incomes, but also the worst incidence of many health problems.
On the Ute reservation in particular, unemployment is said to range between 65 percent to 80 percent. What's more, Pike isn't the first to look on gambling as a possible way out of the Indians' economic woes. About 20 percent of the more than 400 tribal reservations in the United States are said to have adopted some form of gambling to raise money for the tribal governments.
But desperate circumstances don't justify resorting to degrading extremes. Just how degrading can be seen from the unhappy results of gambling uncovered a few years ago by The Christian Science Monitor:
- It creates new bettors who eventually turn to illegal bookmakers to avoid taxes and increases the ranks of compulsive gamblers.
- By feeding illegal gambling operations, it helps corrupt law enforcement agencies and subsidizes organized crime.
- Gambling amounts to a regressive form of revenue-raising, hitting the poor the hardest of all and adding to the welfare rolls.
- It attracts other costly crime like prostitution and loan sharking.
True, the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs recently established a Tribal Gaming Commission to police gambling activities on the reservations. The Bureau of Indian Affairs, however, is anything but a model of effectiveness. Even if it were, no agency is automatically immune from the corruption that goes with gambling.
Besides, if the Pike plan helped alleviate the Utes' economic misery, it would do so by increasing others' misery. Is that really what the tribe wants?
One final point: If more and more tribes keep opening Indian lands to gambling, it is bound to breathe new life into efforts to get Congress to make gambling on reservations subject to state regulation. Once that happens, there's bound to be increased pressure for outside regulation of other reservation activities. Again, is that really what the Indians want?