The puritan, as devotees of Baltimore’s finest know, is greatly exercised by the fear that someone, somewhere, might be enjoying themselves.

Ed Miliband is a puritan.

And a hopeless, nagging, fish-faced puritan at that. A ninny, in other words.

The Labour leader has a rare gift. He knows, you see, how you should spend your money. What’s more, if you fail to spend your cash in the proper Miliband-approved manner he thinks he should be – nay is! – entitled to coerce you into changing your miserable behaviour.

Of course he is not alone in that. Many politicians are far too free and easy in these matters. But there is a special teeth-grinding awfulness to the way in which Miliband seeks to coerce this fine country’s citizens that never fails to annoy me. Miliband may not think the stars are god’s daisy chain but he still reaches levels of simpering ghastliness that make me think he’s a kind of political Madeleine Bassett. (Which, I admit, is peculiar since he looks and sounds like Gussie Fink-Nottle.)

He’s at it again with his desire to combat the “untold damage” supposedly caused by Fixed Odds Betting Terminals in betting shops.  Nor does he lack allies. Tom Watson popped up in the Guardian earlier this month to tell us exactly how much this untold damage cost.

As is so often the case, much of the reporting on these machines – which chiefly offer the chance to play roulette, blackjack and other “casino” games – is hopelessly inaccurate and stupefyingly innumerate.

It is true that a lot of money is spent on these machines. But since total betting shop revenue has not increased significantly in recent years it seems probable that FOTBs are simply replacing money that would previously have been wagered elsewhere.

Newspapers are full of heartbreaking stories about the damage these supposedly-addictive machines cause. Failing to refer to them as “the crack cocaine of gambling” contravenes a number of journalistic by-laws.

It is rarely mentioned – and certainly never prominently mentioned – that these machines pay out £97 for every £100 wagered. In other words, they offer more attractive odds than “traditional” fruit machines (which pay out only 70% of money spent) or, for that matter, the National Lottery (which pays out 50% of takings). Play for long enough and most of the time you will more-or-less break even. Betting might still be a mug’s game but FOBTs offer you a better chance than the horses. (Spending £1000 on a FOBT can, all things being equal, be expected to cost you £30. The average player, of course, will spend much less than that on their gaming. And so lose less.)

It is true that, theoretically, you could lose £18,000 in an hour on these machines. But for that to happen you would need to wager the maximum stake (£100) every 20 seconds for an hour. And since you would be betting, in the case of a roulette machine, on the number being red or black you would need to lose a close to 50-50 proposition 180 consecutive times to lose your £18,000.

Saying that you can lose £18,000 an hour in betting-shop roulette is as idiotic – and just as accurate – as claiming you can win £18,000 an hour playing these games. But since the losing £18,000 an hour claim is endlessly repeated one can only assume that almost all politicians and journalists commenting on this matter are, in fact, half-wits. (By the way, if you want to bet on an individual number, the stake is capped at £15).

That’s one thing I took away from an admirable paper produced by Chris Snowdon for the Institute of Economic Affairs. (Summary here, PDF here). It demolishes the argument that FOBTs are a uniquely evil phenomenon. Or, indeed, a problem at all.

Of course some of the people who play these machines have problems. That’s true of any form of gambling. But every innovation in the betting world has been labelled the new crack cocaine of gambling and none of them have become destroyers of worlds. Indeed, there’s a good argument to be made that FOBTs, access to which is restricted to adults and in which the gaming takes place in a regulated environment, is a safer form of wagering than many others.

Be that as it may, the idea Britain is suffering from too many betting shops is an extremely odd one. In the late 1960s there were roughly 16,000 turf accountants in Britain. By 2000 that had fallen to 8,732 and though there has been a modest increase since in 2012 there were 9,128 such establishments. Or, to put it another way, in 1970 there was one betting shop for every 3,500 people in Britain. Today there is one for every 6,600. That is, one per small town in the country.

As usual, however, an activity that is harmless fun for the vast majority of consumers is deemed something which must be curbed because a small number of people cannot handle it. To save the few we must punish the many. That’s nanny’s way.

But most FOBT users are scarcely “addicted” to the machines. Only 15% play two times a week or more. And most, of course, are not wagering anything like the maximum permitted on the machines. Even so, permitting decent sized wagers is important and not just because, hey, it’s up to individuals to decide how much they wish to risk. Reduce the maximum stake, as some suggest, to £2 and you effectively ban the machines because you reduce the house take to 18p a minute (over the longer-term). It would be like making it illegal to wager more than 10p on a horse race. As Snowdon points out:

Of those who gamble every month, rates of problem gambling are not exceptionally high amongst those who play FOBTs. The 2010 BGPS [British Gambling Prevalence Survey] found that 13.3% of regular FOBT players were problem gamblers. This is higher than the rate found amongst the general population, of course, but it is lower than the rate found amongst those who gamble on dog races (19.2%), non-sports events (13.8%), casino games (13.9%), online slot machines (17%) or who play poker in a pub or club (20.3%). It is, in any case, unwise to draw firm conclusions about the causes of problem gambling from the specific games played. Problem gamblers tend to engage in many different gambling activities. For example, 20% of those who play poker and take part in at least six other gambling activities are problem gamblers, but the rate falls to just 1.4% for those who play poker but take part in few other gambling activities.

Problem gamblers are attracted to FOBTs because FOBTs offer gambling. There is precious little evidence to support the notion FOBTs are a significant cause of gambling addiction. If they did not exist would these problem gamblers suddenly cease to have a problem? Of course not. To suppose so is to out yourself as a nincompoop.

Most people who wager on horses do so because its fun. The same might be said of most people who visit a traditional casino (it’s fine for people like that – people like us? – to play roulette but the poor proles can’t be trusted to know their limits, eh?) The people must be protected from themselves! Why? Well, just look at them…

As Snowdon says, quite correctly:

Money spent on these games can only be considered ‘squandered if it is first assumed that players receive no private benefit or pleasure from playing them. If gambling is irrational and the money spent on it is ‘lost’ then gambling is disqualified as a valid consumer activity, but this rests on a moral judgement rather than an empirical statement of truth. Opponents of gambling are welcome to make the moral argument for why cost-benefit analyses cannot be applied to gambling, but they should at least recognise that not all the money put into the slot is lost forever.

Perhaps gambling is a sin but at least have the honesty to make the argument in those terms. All this, of course, is the same as the wars on tobacco and booze. In each instance a hectoring contempt for the pleasures of ordinary people is dressed up as compassionate concern for their plight. It is a nonsense and a nonsense, moreover, which reveals a certain distaste for the citizens of this country. If only they were better people!

And if only we had more politicians brave and sensible enough to say that some things are not the proper business of the state. David Cameron’s proper response to these so-called concerns should be to say that how people choose to lead their own lives is, almost always, no concern of his or any other politician. Their choices may be regrettable, even deplorable, but they are their choices.

As for the so-called clustering effect whereby multiple bookmakers open stores on the same high street, well, that – surprise, surprise – is at least in part the consequence of regulation. Betting shops are not permitted to have more than four FOBTs. In areas where there is demand for betting – often, as has always been the case, working-class areas – this means there may not be enough FOBTs in a single shop to meet demand. So, gosh, you get more betting shops. As is so often the case, treating a demand “problem” as a supply issue proves counter-productive.

Again, betting shop profits have not increased notably in recent years and this fact alone might be enough to persuade sensible observers that the crack cocaine of gambling is not in fact very much like crack cocaine at all. Sadly there seem to be few such sensible observers at Westminster and almost none at all in senior positions within the Labour party.

Tags: Britain, Ed Miliband, Gambling, libertarianism, moral panic, roulette, UK politics