Las Vegas is a jolting mixture of greed, glitz and grunginess. On the concrete highways winding towards the neon-lit Strip, ads for personal injury lawyers are as numerous as palm trees.
On a recent trip to the city of sin, I learned more about its origins with the Mob who took advantage of Nevada’s lack of gambling regulation laws in the early 20th Century, to set up lucrative casino rackets which they ran with an iron fist.
As the power and influence of organised crime grew in this period, the mob used its wealth and muscle to buy off crooked politicians, infiltrate trade unions, control the ports and even manipulate the outcome of elections.
Though the mob never perpetrated violence against ordinary American people, it did corrupt their civic and political institutions, ruthlessly exploiting the poorly funded and fragmented law enforcement that existed at the time.
When American society did begin to push back against the illicit activities of the mob, the result was a massive increase in state powers. Particularly in the area of federalised police services: the FBI being a big winner; its investigative and surveillance powers greatly increased with the creation of the Top Hoodlum Program and the passing of the RICO act in 1953.
Because of horrendously bad actors an open, self-regulating system was forced to close.
As someone who leans libertarian, this gave me pause for thought. Is the problem of bad actors something that libertarian philosophy fails to properly address? And do libertarians unwittingly help create the systems they despise by underestimating the more unpleasant facts of human nature, which flourish under their inattention? For a lot of libertarians, “the State” is the only bad actor they will ever acknowledge.
Which is not entirely true.
I watched The Big Short (2015) on the plane ride back from the US. It’s an excellent adaptation of the 2010 non-fiction book of the same name in which author Michael Lewis covered the men who made billions betting against the US housing market, which crashed in 2008. The film remains largely faithful to its literary predecessor despite a few minor Hollywood embellishments.
The point the book and the film both make is that an incredibly reckless financial system (possibly even fraudulent in some instances) nearly collapsed the global economy. To the horror of most free marketers and libertarians, the banks were then rescued from their self-made catastrophe by large taxpayer-funded bailouts.
And it is not simply a question of who did what to whom. The banks and other unscrupulous mortgage lenders were only part of the problem; irresponsible people who took loans they knew they could not afford were not simply victims of the system. They were complicit.
Which is why ultimately, for me, it all comes to down certain moral realities:
Human beings are greedy and lie, cheat and steal.
It’s not the whole story. We are also capable of great virtue. I’m certainly not pessimistic about human nature, but I’m also wary of being a Pollyanna about it.
Those of us who value liberty push constantly for more openness and freedom without properly considering how an open system is totally dependent on its participants acting in good faith. It only takes a few miscreants to undermine the whole thing.
Though, of course, one man’s hoodlum is another man’s hero.
On my last night in Las Vegas, a grey-haired Uber driver told me: “Vegas was much better when the mob ran it. Everything is so commercial nowadays.”
Featured Image Credit: Mug shot of Mob boss Al Capone in 1929