04/06/2012 03:32 pm ET | Updated Jun 06, 2012

To Bet or Not to Bet? Why Gambling on Elections Is Wrong

Many mornings this spring, my roommate, Teddy, and I have speculated about how the Republican candidates are likely to fare in states we've never visited. Our third roommate, Ben, stays quiet and seeks out the most reliable polling information he knows. "InTrade has Romney up by 4," Ben will say. When he does so, my stomach churns a bit -- and not because of Romney.

InTrade -- which bills itself as the "World's Leading Prediction Market" -- is a website that allows users to create betting 'markets' and buy or sell 'shares' in any yes-or-no prediction they can dream up. Shares range from $0 to $10, and their prices reflect the market's overall confidence that the event in question will happen. Right now, for example, it costs a user $9.74 to buy a share in the market that Ruth Bader Ginsburg will be the next Supreme Court justice to retire or resign. In other words, the market thinks there's a 97.4% chance that this event will take place. (InTrade's election-specific predictions are quite accurate -- and much more so than many polls.)

You can also bet on election outcomes. Will Rick Santorum win the Pennsylvania primary? Will Pat Toomey be the Republican VP nominee? Will Barack Obama be re-elected?

But as much fun as it can be to speculate about these questions, I can't bring myself to feel good about the idea of gambling on election outcomes. It's not because I oppose gambling in general; I think betting on how much money The Hunger Games makes on its opening weekend is just fine. (A little silly maybe, but fine.)

Instead, my objection has to do with a feeling that our elections are profound, even sacred opportunities to express our highest ideals, and that gambling profanes them.

Now, that's not to say that our elections actually are particularly high-minded affairs. They usually aren't. But they could be, if only we'd take ourselves and our democracy seriously enough to insist on it.

Gambling on elections cuts the other way. It's as if the InTraders are saying, "None of the stuff that's at stake in these elections matters to us. We just care about getting ours." (You can imagine the more cynical version: We're screwed either way, so we might as well make a few bucks betting on when the ship will go down.)

Maybe I'm being unfair. After all, some of these folks could be dedicated activists who also enjoy expressing their commitment to a particular candidate by putting money behind the campaign -- gambling as a gesture of hope or faith.

My roommate Ben has an even more sanguine take. Not only is betting on elections morally acceptable, he thinks, it's actually valuable. After all, prediction markets provide a kind of information that you can't get anywhere else. This information comes in the form of prices, which Ben takes to be an important signal of people's real feelings about a matter. People might lie to pollsters, his thinking goes, but they're less likely to lie to themselves when they're deciding how to bet on Santorum stock.

When Ben first explained this line of thinking, I felt a familiar kind of ethical tension. While I'm not comfortable gambling on elections, that fact that other people do so creates something I value. (After all, I want to know which candidate the markets think is going to win -- and above all, I want my candidate to know so that his or her campaign can develop the most effective strategy.)

But that doesn't answer the basic question: how should we regard gambling on elections in the first place? Perhaps an analogy will help.

Right now on InTrade, you can place bets on whether the U.S. or Israel will launch an air strike on Iran this year. (In fact, you can place different bets based on when you think a strike might occur.) When I told a friend about this, he responded, "Why would you create an incentive to rejoice at war?"

He's right. When we bet on trivial things -- basketball games, American Idol -- we don't put our moral selves at stake. Regardless of how things turn out, the world won't be meaningfully better or worse.

But when we gamble on things like war (or elections), we create incentives for ourselves to want things that may run counter to our best moral instincts. No, I don't want to see Tehran burn, but it would be nice to have that $50. These incentives encourage us to balance things that cannot be balanced. They may even affect our political behavior -- distorting our priorities and inviting us to be a little more (or less) vocal than we might otherwise be.

If that example seems extreme, take something closer to home. Would you bet on how long a friend's marriage might last? How about the month in which a family member might die? If you said no, my guess is that you did so because you understand what another friend recently suggested to me: that part of being moral involves responding appropriately to things with moral weight.

The world is a complicated and uncertain place. But that doesn't mean that everything in it should be treated like a March Madness pool. Some things matter more. Some things are sacred, even. Gambling sullies them and sullies us.

Note: this article originally appeared at The Wheat and Chaff.