Is Investing Gambling? (Biblical Finance #9)

From time to time, I’ll hear people arguing that, morally speaking, investing in the stock market is the same thing as gambling.  Usually, the argument is advanced by folks who think that gambling is fine and want to expose what they see as hypocrisy in those who believe that it’s wrong.  They don’t actually avoid the market themselves; instead, they want to be left to their gambling.

The premise underlying this conclusion is that gambling (for money) is wrong because it’s a “game of chance”.  You can’t control how the cards fall or the dice roll, so it’s somehow morally deficient to entrust your money to the whims of fate.  Similarly, when we invest, we put our money in some financial market, and markets are famously uncertain.  We could, conceivably, lose every dime.  Same moral problem, right?

The problem here isn’t with the reasoning.  It’s with the premise.  Gambling isn’t wrong because it involves putting money at risk.  There’s no verse in the Bible that says that risking money is sinful.

Furthermore, risking money is an extremely common activity.  All life is uncertain, which means that every economic decision we make involves a risk.  We could buy a house and watch as somebody builds a feed lot across the street six months later.  We could start a business and have it go bankrupt.  We could get married and end up divorcing (fun fact:  divorce is the single most financially disastrous experience a modern American can undergo).  If putting money at risk is wrong for Christians, we would have to stop using money.

Instead, gambling is morally problematic because it involves covetousness, a selfish desire for what belongs to someone else.  Normal market transactions have two winners.  If I go to Target and buy a golf shirt for $10, I am happier with my shirt than I was with the ten bucks, and Target is happier with my ten bucks than they were with the shirt.  Nobody depends for their gain on somebody else’s loss.

However, gambling always has a winner and a loser (or losers).  This is most obvious at the poker table.  Each player wants to win the pot, which means that he necessarily must want all the other players to lose.  The others can gain only at his expense, and he can gain only at the expense of others.

Gambling, then, is an essentially selfish exercise.  Not only is the gambler indifferent to the good of others.  He must actively wish them ill if he wants to succeed.  Sometimes, the harm caused is indirect, as with a lottery, but with gambling, it is always present.

Furthermore, the gambler doesn’t want his opponents to lose because he thinks their mothers dress them funny.  He wants them to lose because he wants their money, and desiring another’s harm for the sake of money is covetousness, plain and simple.

However, investing in the stock market doesn’t necessarily involve covetousness.  Instead, it looks much more like an ordinary economic transaction.  If I buy 10 shares of Amazon stock, that’s not a win-lose.  It’s a win-win.  I wanted the stock more than the seller wanted it, and they wanted the money more than I wanted it.  He doesn’t have to want me to lose, and I don’t have to want him to lose.

Sure, those shares of stock may lose value tomorrow, but again, that’s common to every financial transaction.  The business I buy may go bankrupt.  I may spill barbecue sauce on my brand-new golf shirt (an example all too true to life, alas!).  We can shift risks like that with warranties, but they’re always present.  Again, a Christian who doesn’t want to sell somebody something with an uncertain future can’t sell anybody anything.

Of course, there are moral problems with selling somebody a product with an almost certainly bad future.  Target shouldn’t sell golf shirts that dissolve the first time they are washed.  Similarly, I shouldn’t sell shares of stock in a company that I know will declare bankruptcy tomorrow.

Such actions are fraudulent and reveal a covetous heart.  So too does selling a lottery ticket with a 1/160,000,000 chance of paying out.  When it comes to gambling, there’s lots of sin to go around.

Having money isn’t a sin.  Being rich isn’t a sin.  Engaging in commerce with an uncertain outcome isn’t a sin.  Instead, the sin comes in when we start caring more about money than we do about our neighbor.

Investing in the stock market doesn’t necessarily lead us into covetousness.  I’ve had retirement accounts for a decade now, and I’ve never once thought I was profiting at someone else’s expense, nor indeed done so.  With gambling, by contrast, the connection between the activity and a selfish heart is inescapable.

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