The decision to slash the limit on fixed odds betting terminals is an important one.
Not just because it will protect some of the most vulnerable people in our society, but because it gets to the hub of an important social question – what is the point of big business?
After all, businesses don’t exist in isolation. They have to work alongside the rest of society, satisfying a need, working within rules. That’s why there is an implicit social contract between companies and the rest of society.
Take banks, for instance. Our big high street names need to demonstrate that they are useful and helpful, that they accommodate us, keep our money safe and support entrepreneurship. That’s why the 2008 financial crisis was such a watershed – because the banks had breached that social contract, and went on to feel the wrath of the public.
Often the market will help us out here. Shops that try to sell products at exorbitant prices will go out of business. Products that don’t fulfil a useful purpose don’t get bought. People only pay for entertainment that is, well, entertaining.
But there are times when society needs something more, when vulnerable people need protection, or when the common good means we need regulation and intervention.
Most people agree that we should regulate the sale of alcohol, for instance, and stop children going into strip clubs. And we should also ensure that people with disabilities are helped to engage with all forms of business.
So there’s a balance. And that’s why today’s announcement has sparked such outrage.
On the one side that is those who think that controlling the scope of betting machines amounts to proof of a nanny state.
The Government is meddling, they say, and it will cost jobs and destroy fun. If people want to waste their money on betting machines with a paltry chance at making a profit, so the argument goes, who are we to stop them.
On the other side are those who point at the victims of gambling addiction, and who believe that the state’s role is, basically, to stop people doing things that are bad for them, their families and, you might say, for society at large.
Now it’s hard to say that fixed-odds betting terminals do any social good. Yes, they raise money for the Treasury, and help bolster the profits of some – but not all – betting companies.
It may be that some people find them fun, just as some people think fox hunting is fun, but social good? Hardly.
The flip side is that it’s hard to argue that they don’t do harm – there are many stories of players frantically spending the family savings, of desperate addiction, and of the hapless inadequacy of the existing laws to stop repeat losers.
One gambler lost £14,000 in seven hours; others have been convicted after smashing up shops in desperate fury.
The industry will have us believe that these people will all drift to alternative locations – amusement arcades, casinos and shadowy back-street suppliers. The problem, they say, will just be moved elsewhere.
What’s more, so we are told, the collapse of these machines will also result in hundreds of shops closing, thousands of job losses, and a huge hit to the Exchequer.
And yet sometimes Governments are there to make these sort of judgements.
Presumably, somewhere, there are people who were laid off when the local land-mine factory closed. At the end of the First World War, workers were laid off from the factory in Avonmouth where Britain had been making mustard gas. It’s not good enough, frankly, to defend something purely on the grounds that an industry supports jobs.
As for the Treasury – that’s a matter for the Government. But within the context of the nation’s tax take, it’s not a big loss, particularly when set off against the plans to impose a different levy on the betting industry.
Our giant betting companies are all profitable enterprises, whose future is not dependent upon these machines. They survived without this income for a long while before, and they will again.
But gambling, more than most businesses, is dependent upon that social contract, on walking the line between amusing society, and damaging it.
We don’t live in a nanny state, but nor do we float free of any shackles or controls. Restraint is not repression.