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A Casino Will Gamble With Toronto's Most Vulnerable Citizens

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"Pennies don't fall from heaven -- they have to be earned here on earth."

- The Late Margaret Thatcher, former UK Prime Minister

"Every regulation represents a restriction of liberty, every regulation has a cost," said the late U.K. Prime Minister, Lady Margaret Thatcher. May she rest in peace. 'Wicked' policy problems in urban policy, Mrs. Thatcher might say, need to be solved with facts. But gambling is not what the late Daniel Patrick Moynihan, a U.S. Democrat and sociologist whose courage warmed him to conservatives, would have defined as a wicked problem. That's because "everyone," he said, "is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts."

This is at the heart of conservatism, something I learned about in my early journalistic career prior to business and academe, having been on the editorial board of the National Review, dining and conversing on such matters with the late William F. Buckley at his stately Manhattan apartment; serving as a founding member of the National Post; serving our Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, as in-house counsel to the National Citizens' Coalition; and, finally, in homage to Friedrich Hayek and the late Mrs. Thatcher, spending time as a Fellow of the free-market Fraser Institute.

My politics have changed; I am post-partisan now. But I still recall a bit about elemental conservatism. Have no doubt: state-enabled gambling of a casino in the city of Toronto is antithetical to conservatism.

A landmark 1973 article in Policy Sciences, "Dilemmas in a Theory of Planning," by the urban planners Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber drew a distinction between 'tame' and 'wicked' social problems. 'Tame' problems can be redressed by evidence-driven analysis: examples are sanitation, higher agricultural productivity, electrification -- and gambling.

Such issues can be clearly circumscribed, data can be gathered, and the efficacy of policy solutions can be tested. Gambling is a problem of this variety. The essence of conservatism -- of the sort Mr. Ford supposedly espouses -- shows that gambling is a tame problem. The policy solution is to ensure that the state brooks no such policy nonsense.

Exploiting society's most vulnerable citizens, the modus operandi of revenue-generating gambling, is regressive taxation. Imposing it as policy denies evidence of its deleterious effects on families, depression, and on the incidence of what the conservative sociologist, James Q. Wilson, called 'broken windows' crimes, such as vandalism and urban disorder.

Mr. Ford's crusade in support of gambling makes comedic allusion to "10,000 good-paying jobs" and a moral defence suggesting -- without evidence -- that a majority of the people he talks to favour a casino. An appeal to majority -- even if such a fictitious majority existed -- runs counter to conservatism, which requires robust data to support policy action. Further, if Mr. Ford is to rely on 'multiplier-effect economics' -- or government "creating jobs" -- then he knows little about Economics 101, much less conservatism.

In a recent edition of Healthcare Quarterly, a leading health policy journal, Robert I. Simpson, the CEO of the Ontario Problem Gambling Research Centre from its inception in 2000 until 2010, notes that "the singular driving force for expansion [of gambling] is government's quest for non-tax revenue, largely in response to an ideologically based disaffection for tax increases. The trade-off is that, without precedent, government becomes directly involved in providing an activity that knowingly harms the population it is elected to serve." A true conservative, unlike Mr. Ford, will assess the facts soberly.

First, let us review the revenue argument. In a commentary concerning his paper, Mr. Simpson noted that he had calculated the revenues that the proposed mega-casino would extract from the local Toronto economy at $1 billion annually. Applying the 'turn-over rate' currently realized in Ontario, only 35 per cent, he analyzed, will go to government and the remainder, siphoned to operations. That $1 billion will drain away other consumer expenditures, notably spending on entertainment and leisure activities. "An extraction of this magnitude," he writes, "will certainly create substantial job loss and business failure." In other words, gambling is a net-negative revenue generator, creates negative incentives to sustain thriving business, and thereby robs Peter to pay Paul much less.

Second, gambling is highly addictive. According to a 2006 article by Wiebe and colleagues called "Gambling and Problem Gambling in Ontario 2005," there were roughly 330,000 problem gamblers of moderate to high severity. And that was seven years ago.

Hence a large portion of the city Mr. Ford governs already suffers from problem gambling. His jejune pro-gambling agenda will abet their addiction and encourage more addicts and destroy their families. Addictions are twinned with mental health challenges, which, in turn, produce severe negative knock-on effects that deplete scarce health resources and produce harm. Any true conservative, awake to the abundance of data, should admit this.

Third, I do not believe in 'recreational gambling.' Toronto is a great city, and has earned the enduring title, "Toronto the Good," not because it once had as its roots puritan values, but rather because it is still peaceful and devoid of the 'broken windows' problems Professor James Q. Wilson rightly vilified. Gambling is a gateway drug; a city that enables and promotes it violates basic principles of conservatism -- notably, to draw on evidence from other jurisdictions, and to put social problems to heel before they reach metastasis.

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