|Decriminalizing the numbers business: Putting the cards on the table|
The Counsellors Ltd.
Published: Jun 15, 2012
Little has excited stronger opinions and emotions in recent times than the debate as to whether or not to decriminalize the numbers business. The arguments have grown stronger with the appearance of the “web shops”, which have sprung up in New Providence.
Prohibition of numbers gaming in The Bahamas
In The Bahamas prohibition of the numbers business has been full of contradictions and irony. Bahamians have been playing numbers and running numbers businesses illegally for years. There have been police raids on such activities and prosecutions to no avail.
At the same time, it should be noted that Bahamians play games of chance at the annual carnival in Oakes Field without hindrance for 45 days each year.
The worst of it is that the money they spend goes out of the country to benefit another country.
Furthermore, unreasoning emotionalism has sometimes gone as far as calling for a ban on raffles, which are also games of chance, but happen to be one of the most productive means of funding the work of non-governmental, charitable institutions from which Bahamians have derived great benefit.
This country would be sorely bereft if such organizations ceased to exist.
The government purse cannot satisfy all the cultural and social needs that the benefaction of private sector individuals and corporate groups, such as the new web shops, supply generously.
Commentary and calls for action, as regards decriminalization of the numbers business, have run the gamut from letters to the editors of the local dailies strongly supporting or condemning the regularization of this form of gaming to even stronger evangelical fervor for complete prohibition of such enterprises. In its election platform, the Progressive Liberal Party (PLP), which won the government in the May 7 general election, promised to put the issue to rest through a popular referendum. This commitment has since been reaffirmed. It is obviously time for a more logical look at pros and cons of the debate.
The case for decriminalization of the numbers business
Support for decriminalizing local gaming, particularly as relates to the operations of duly licensed web shops rests on the following main points. Such legislation would:
1. Assist in bringing about full legitimacy to businesses that are already duly licensed, tax compliant and in full compliance with all labor laws;
2. Create new revenue streams for the Public Treasury in tough economic times through the taxation of the profits of web shops.
The added income, which would run in the millions, would allow the government to build more hospitals and schools and operate more social programs benefiting all Bahamians;
3. Bring order and stability to the entire web café concept ensuring that only duly licensed and authorized vendors are able to operate a “legitimate” café or satellite locations abiding by all the rules and regulations, which this entails (sales, payouts, etc.).
Web shops are creating jobs, adding to the bottom line of various suppliers of goods and services, making large charitable donations and paying such taxes as current legislation demands
The supporters of legitimizing the numbers business as represented by the web shops argue that:
• Web shops are not the old numbers operations with runners and their customers making shady deals on the corners of rundown neighborhoods, with both sides at risk to cheating, robbery and police arrest. Rather, they are technologically sophisticated businesses providing safe surroundings, entertainment and accountability to the extent that the provisions of current legislation permit them to.
• Web shops supply various forms of entertainment that Bahamians choose for themselves.
• Web shops contribute to this country’s economic health as businesses.
Providing easily verifiable information, proponents of the move for a referendum
• The various web shop groups together employ 3,000-plus Bahamians. They have also absorbed a good many persons who were made redundant when Atlantis downsized in recent times.
• They stimulate small business growth and further employment in purchasing courier, construction, repair and maintenance services and many others.
• They pay National Insurance contributions to the tune of $4 million-plus annually.
• Other payouts include over $10 million for electricity and cable services and paper.
The most serious aspect of the failure to decriminalize the numbers business
The law in action does not distinguish between the operators of numbers establishments and their customers and employees; when the police have made their periodic raids all have suffered the embarrassment of being hauled away like criminals. The implications are very serious:
1. In the trying conditions brought on by the lingering recession, Bahamians are glad to have the jobs that the growth of web shops has created. Is it right to shame these hardworking and honest Bahamians, deprive them of the dignity of work and perhaps drive them to less salubrious situations where they might indeed engage in dangerous and real criminal activity?
2. Consider the case of the web shop customers. The Bahamas government obviously does not hold games of chance to be intrinsically wrong, as it has legitimized casino gaming and raffles. Where then is the justification for excluding Bahamians from playing numbers, if they so choose? Can it be an attempt to deprive them of an aspect of their civil rights? Probably not in intent, but certainly in action.
How sound are the arguments against the decriminalization?
The lobby against gaming tends to claim that formal gaming businesses attract crime, take trade from small businesses and victimize the poor who are likely to make up the greatest percentage of gamers.
Gaming is also blamed for addiction and the breakup of families. Religious conservatives agree with these points and add that gaming violates the biblical standard of stewardship and brings about a decline in the work ethic.
The trouble with the anti-gaming argument lies in assigning blame for complex social issues such as crime, addiction and family dysfunction to a single source – playing numbers. This fallacy is compounded when prohibition of the numbers business is promoted as a solution and, sometimes, the only solution to this range of social ills.
Does banning/prohibition work? An example from history.
The biggest question is: Does prohibition work? History gives many peerless examples to the contrary.
The anti-liquor lobby had long held banning alcohol as the solution to the social and economic consequences of the consumption of strong drink.
Their cause in the United States succeeded when in 1919 the U.S. Government passed the Volstead Act, which prohibited the manufacture, transportation and sale of alcoholic beverages. It is said that alcohol consumption did decline to some extent, but the period between the passage of the act and 1933 when the act was repealed, known as “Prohibition”, gave rise to gangs of vicious bootleggers and other criminals, who often enjoyed the complicity of ordinary citizens. Chicago’s notorious Al Capone and his ilk fed a reign of terror such as the United States had not known before.
It is obvious that prohibition can drive issues underground and create problems even greater than those it sought to get rid of.
The trouble with trying to legislate moral choices is that it obscures the deeper issues contributing to social and economic problems, thereby delaying or preventing the identification of causes and the search for more solid and lasting solutions.
Establishing a more workable and sustainable approach
Would it not be better to look into the matter logically, set up rules and regulations and establish a solid framework for compliance and monitoring as regards the operation of web shops?
Democracy in action
Prime Minister Perry Christie and his government appear to be taking the democratic route by allowing the web shop operators a hearing and by proposing to put the matter to the Bahamian people through a referendum.
It is a strategy that has already been criticized by opponents of legitimizing local gaming, but it is certainly to be congratulated as democracy in action.
Bahamians have long signalled their choice in the matter of playing numbers for whatever reason.
If they can be entrusted to vote for governments, would it be right to deprive them of the right to choose their entertainment when it does not impinge on the rights of others?
|Last Updated on Friday, 15 June 2012 16:38|