May 112003

[OBLIGATORY] Accusations of hypocrisy are, of course, a form of tu quoque. Bill Bennett would still be a self-righteous prohibitionist gasbag even if he didn’t lose millions at slots. His books are good or bad, his arguments valid or invalid, regardless. Like Evan Kirchhoff and Ken Layne, I find his choice of game far more damning than the fact that he gambled at all. Slot machines are for little old ladies wearing stretch pants and a gardening glove.

Bennett’s case may not even rise to the level of hypocrisy. This has nothing to do with the fact that he never specifically condemned gambling, instead directing his ire toward pot-smoking, adultery, and other vices in which he apparently did not personally indulge. I am perfectly willing to stipulate that Bennett, on his own principles, should have objected to gambling, although he did not. The arch-hypocrite in literature is Tartuffe, who preaches virtues in which he does not believe to enhance his own position. Insincerity distinguishes the true hypocrite. Though Bennett made his pile by declaiming against vices analogous to gambling, which complicates the problem, there is no evidence that he is anything but sincere in his flogging of the Ten Commandments. His sin is not Tartuffery but weakness. If I resolve to rise early to write (and I do) and then sleep in instead (and I do) this makes me, technically, a hypocrite. I daresay that most of us are technically hypocrites. Real villainy comes not from doing what you think is wrong, usually, but from doing what you think is right, or from not caring about the difference.

Hypocrisy plays especially badly with lazy thinkers, as Eugene Volokh more politely points out, because it is easy to detect inconsistency between thought and behavior, hard to detect inconsistency in thought, and harder still to detect plain error. Naturally Bennett is vulnerable to such accusations. He understands this, which is why he’s announced that he will stop gambling.

Lining up someone’s convictions with his personal life is a heads-I-win, tails-you-lose proposition. If you defend gambling, and gamble, then you’re no longer disinterested, and your argument can be disregarded. If you oppose gambling, and gamble, then you’re a hypocrite, and your argument can be disregarded. If you oppose gambling, and don’t gamble, then you’re a smug puritan, and your argument can be disregarded. If you defend gambling, and don’t gamble, then you lack personal knowledge of the horrors of gambling, and your argument, again, can be disregarded. Only vice’s ex-“victims” are presumed to have the standing to make an argument at all. They dominate the discourse, and unsurprisingly, they’re all for laws. This is a recipe for prohibitionism.

Of course Bennett is technically a liar too, but come on. A gambler who says he’s “pretty close to even” is like a fisherman who says it was this big, or a rug merchant who says he can’t lower the price. Everybody knows what “pretty close to even” means. It means “I lost a lot of money.” [/OBLIGATORY]