Most people who object to the curious practice of states owning and operating gambling corporations tend to build their case around the way such companies unfairly compete with the privately owned industry. They are wrong. The most serious issue is state-owned gambling companies’ self-imposed role as opinion leaders.
It is one thing for the political majority in society to decide that gambling products should be marketed and sold by a state-owned company. That is a bad idea since it goes far beyond what is usually considered to be at the core of a state’s business, such as safeguarding national security or an independent judiciary. But it is not so bad as to constitute a serious attack on the foundations of a democratic society.
Those of us who believe that industry and commerce ought to be privately owned may take exception to the state owning and operating, in an open competitive market, vehicle inspection stations, mortgage lenders, gambling companies and pharmacies (all real examples from my home country of Sweden). But apart from their utter senselessness, as privately owned companies offer the same services in the same market, the situation would be tolerable if it wasn’t for the way these corporations court public opinion.
State-owned gambling companies across Europe have been busy telling society how the activities of their own and all other gambling businesses ought to be governed. No one is left wondering what state-owned gambling companies believe should be done to combat match-fixing, or how gambling advertising can be best regulated, as these views are fed to politicians and the public on a daily basis.
The problem with this arrangement is that, in a free society, it is the people – through their elected leaders – who determine how gambling operators should be regulated. Not the other way around. In an unfree society, state corporations and authorities tell politicians and the people who elect them what to think and how to regulate. That is what state-owned gambling companies are always tempted to do. When government officials dictate how society should be organised, the free democratic debate becomes contaminated.
It’s perfectly appropriate for members of society and politicians to believe that state-owned commercial gambling companies are a great idea, even if you disagree with them. But if so, they should make the case for such an arrangement themselves and not leave it up to state-owned corporations to interfere in the public debate.
The most blatant example of free speech being contaminated by state-owned gambling companies comes from Finland, where a substantial share of the profits from Veikkaus – the Finnish state’s gambling company – is distributed to political youth associations. In other words, gambling profits go to the country’s future decision-makers, who should be encouraged to think freely and broadly on every societal issue – including on whether or not gambling monopoles are a good idea. Instead, tomorrow’s Finnish politicians are financially dependent on a state-owned corporation that is doing its utmost to protect Finland’s gambling monopoly.
In my own country, organised sport relies on regular payouts from Sweden’s state-owned gambling company. It’s no surprise then that leagues and teams tend to adopt the same position as Svenska Spel on the contentious topics of the day, while the privately owned gambling industry takes the opposite stance. Politicians and the public are then urged to “listen to the leagues and teams.”
If states are to own and operate gambling companies, I think the only responsible recourse is to organise an annual bonfire and burn the profits from gambling. My suggestion? Do it once on Walpurgis Night, on April 30, when my country traditionally torches the discarded piles of twigs and branches from the past autumn and winter to mark the arrival of spring. Any other use of these profits will corrupt its recipients.