Card Games Banned for Seniors
A ban on petty gambling is in itself not a major issue, but it points to a deep problem in laws and policies. Government is often not a servant of the people, but a cruel master.
August 9, 2009
Fred Foldvary, Ph.D.

Old folks, having worked hard all their lives, now want to enjoy their retirement. Many go to senior centers for recreation, and playing cards provides a good structure for socializing. Making small bets on the games puts a little spice into the action and motivates the players to win, and so make it a little challenging. But now the mayor of Baldwinsville, New York, has banned games played for small change at the Canton Woods Senior Center.

Gambling for low stakes does not violate state or county laws at Baldwinsville, but the mayor pointed out that any gambling at all is against the rules of the senior center. Since the center is owned by the village government, in effect the village government bans playing cards for money, even if it is small change.

Playing for low stakes has been going on for many years at the senior center. The games played with money include pinochle, bridge, Texas hold’em, and bingo. Even if the bingo is just played for dimes, having a small stake provides a psychological boost. As one person there said, "Without a little incentive, without a little something to win, nobody wants to play. They've tried playing for fun, but it hasn't gone over so well."

Government-funded senior centers became established throughout the USA after the passage of the Older Americans Act of 1965. There is no federal regulation of senior center gambling. Gambling takes place in many senior centers, mostly for bingo games. It’s more fun to play bingo for money even if a small amount, since when you win, you can yell out “Bingo!” and get a prize. If you get nothing, it is like a birthday party with no presents.

Gambling is a potential problem at senior centers if some of the players exploit a aged person who is mentally incompetent and is fooled into giving up much of his money. This type of fraud and exploitation should be made a crime, with a stiff penalty. But small-stakes playing by seniors who understand what they are doing is a victimless act, and should not be made a crime. It is cruel to inflict such a restriction on seniors who seek a little pleasure while socializing.

The seniors could seek to sue the village government for violating the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The 14th Amendment says that no state shall “deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”

If people in private residences may play cards for small change, while people in a government-operated senior center may not, the law is applied unequally. There is also a natural right to do anything that does not coercively harm others, a right recognized by the 9th Amendment to the US Constitution, which recognizes the existence of rights even when not listed in the Constitution. Thus the village is also violating the natural and Constitutional rights of the seniors.

This ban on petty gambling is in itself not a major issue, but it points to a deep problem in laws and policies. Government is often not a servant of the people, but a cruel master. It is cruel to forcibly prevent old folks from engaging in harmless recreation. Government officials are often cruel tyrants, as those with the greatest will to power seek public office in order to use the state to impose authority. Whoever enacted the ban on petty gambling was essentially a sadist imposing his will to power on the victims, the seniors at the center.

Such prohibitions are difficult to remove unless the victims exercise their power to protest. The victims should go to the village meetings to protest the rules, and be willing to be arrested and put in prison. The sight of dozens of seniors in jail for protesting the petty tyranny of the village government would bring worldwide attention. Small steps like this can lead to greater liberations. When we tolerate petty tyranny, we open the door to greater tyranny.

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Fred Foldvary, Ph.D.

FRED E. FOLDVARY, Ph.D., (May 11, 1946 — June 5, 2021) was an economist who wrote weekly editorials for since 1997. Foldvary’s commentaries are well respected for their currency, sound logic, wit, and consistent devotion to human freedom. He received his B.A. in economics from the University of California at Berkeley, and his M.A. and Ph.D. in economics from George Mason University. He taught economics at Virginia Tech, John F. Kennedy University, Santa Clara University, and San Jose State University.

Foldvary is the author of The Soul of LibertyPublic Goods and Private Communities, and Dictionary of Free Market Economics. He edited and contributed to Beyond Neoclassical Economics and, with Dan Klein, The Half-Life of Policy Rationales. Foldvary’s areas of research included public finance, governance, ethical philosophy, and land economics.

Foldvary is notably known for going on record in the American Journal of Economics and Sociology in 1997 to predict the exact timing of the 2008 economic depression—eleven years before the event occurred. He was able to do so due to his extensive knowledge of the real-estate cycle.