Denise Coates, the CEO of the online betting service Bet365, paid herself £469 million last year, a decent wage any way you look at it. More decent, in fact, than the combined incomes of the remaining 99 CEOs of the FTSE 100 companies, and they are no paupers.
Comments on that record pay are replete with words like ‘obscene’, ‘undeserved’ and even ‘criminal’. Yet libertarians among us won’t cede their ground to egalitarians quite so easily.
They argue that the company has made its profits legally, and it’s nobody’s business how much its founder paid herself. Miss Coates is an icon of free enterprise. Her company paid taxes on billions last year, and it employs 5,000 people. If anyone deserves a lifetime statue, it’s Denise, not Greta.
If I had to come down on either side of the argument, I’d probably go with the libertarians. Their views partly overlap with mine, which is more than I can say for the egalitarians.
However, ‘partly’ is the key word there. I find doctrinaire libertarianism almost as objectionable as its opposite.
Unwavering commitment to free enterprise über alles often takes morality out of the argument, reducing it to unvarnished utilitarianism. Yet utilitarianism tends to refute itself even on its own terms.
For example, libertarians wish to legalise drugs, first marijuana, then even the hard ones. They insist on people’s right to control their own destiny and health. If a chap has no fear of addiction, then by all means he should be allowed to mainline heroin or smoke crack if he so wishes.
Yet the social consequences of decriminalisation are unpredictable and therefore frightening. It’s possible that drug use would increase so much that herds of addicts would be roaming the streets, making them well-nigh uninhabitable. This isn’t the kind of possibility that conservative, which is to say intelligent, people are happy to bet against.
Proponents of legalising drugs argue that levels of addiction wouldn’t increase, while organised crime would be crippled. But gambling, which used to be another mafia pursuit, punches this argument full of holes.
Organised crime is flexible: if one income source goes legal, it intensifies the other sources, or explores new ones. As to the volume of the activity decreasing once it’s legalised, there are 469 strong arguments against this. That’s how many millions the online bookie Denise could afford to pay herself last year.
Our secular world equates morality with legality. If, say, necrophilia were legalised tomorrow, we’ll be expected to welcome morgues advertising on TV, with slogans like “Bed the dead”.
Similarly, because online betting companies like Bet365 are allowed to inundate the box with their publicity, no moral objections are ever raised. Yet I for one regard habitual gambling as morally reprehensible – and it’s habitual gamblers who keep Miss Coates in country estates.
W.C. Fields inadvertently came up with the core principle of the gambling industry: never give a sucker an even break. The industry lives by that maxim, and everyone knows that. Yet suckers keep coming back for more, making one wonder which side to such transactions is more immoral. About a toss-up, I’d suggest.
Most punters are driven by greed, a base hope to get something for nothing. Yes, the house always wins in the end. But that’s in the end, when large-number statistics come into play. This doesn’t mean someone won’t walk away with the jackpot along the way. Hit me again!
It’s not just greed that drives suckers, but also hunger for cheap thrills. Yet many find out that cheap thrills can be dear at the price.
In a society that extols egotism as a virtue, many people lack natural mechanisms restraining their appetites. That’s why in both Britain and the US personal indebtedness far exceeds personal income. People don’t mind using one pack of credit cards to pay off the debts incurred on another, and they apply for bank loans to pay for a holiday without too many second thoughts.
Such rapacity extends to their gambling. Since every vice is these days medicalised, it’s fashionable to talk about ‘gambling addiction’, a disease that supposedly absolves the sufferer of any guilt. Yet gambling beyond one’s means isn’t an addiction in any physiological sense.
It’s a deficit of self-control, responsibility, foresight and – consequently – morality. It’s putting either greed or hedonism or both before reason, prudence and moral restraint.
Catering to, and profiting from, such human frailties is immoral even if legal. That’s why, much as I love to hear Ray Winstone’s rich London accent as he intones “Please gamble wesponsibly” in Bet365 commercials, the company is being dishonest there.
All such businesses depend on what’s called ‘heavy users’. Be it alcohol, cigarettes, fast food or gambling, the old 80-20 split is always at work: 20 per cent of the customers account for 80 per cent of the consumption.
A chap who bets the odd tenner on a football match a couple of times a season isn’t going to keep Denise in personal jets. It takes millions of suckers irresponsibly betting away their rent money because they find Ray Winstone oh so seductive.
Anyone who has ever seen people go for it at a casino, on a race course or in a betting shop is unlikely to describe the emotions contorting their faces as laudable. One sees tasteless, unbridled joy over winning and often real grief over losing, both preceded by unsightly gesticulation and incoherent shrieks.
Would I ban gambling? Probably not. But I’d certainly make it less accessible. Ideally, it should be contained within private clubs charging high membership fees, which would perform a useful vetting function. A chap gambling at Aspinall’s is less likely to become destitute than one doing so on line.
What I would definitely ban is TV advertising for online betting, even at the risk of knocking a zero or two off Miss Coates’s income. After all, we do ban cigarette advertising, so such paternalism is nothing new – and in this case it would be more justified.