Check your liberties at the city limit.

Photographer: Gabriel Bouys/AFP/Getty Images

What Happens in Vegas Is Filmed in Vegas

Megan McArdle is a Bloomberg View columnist. She wrote for the Daily Beast, Newsweek, the Atlantic and the Economist and founded the blog Asymmetrical Information. She is the author of "“The Up Side of Down: Why Failing Well Is the Key to Success.”
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So this weekend, I went to Las Vegas for the first time. I’m not much of a gambler -- I quit playing when they raise the minimums past $5 -- but there’s enough of a theme-park aspect to the place that a few friends and I managed to have a terrific time. Two things immediately stand out to the libertarian visitor: In some ways, it has the most liberty of any place in the U.S. -- and it also has the country’s most developed surveillance state.

First, the libertarian aspects: All sorts of things that aren’t allowed in normal cities are positively encouraged on the Vegas strip -- gambling, obviously, but also things such as drinking and smoking in public. The casinos still allow smoking, and every bar is happy to give you a to-go cup if you don’t want to linger. I’m a little old for all-day drinking, but I did wander around an arcade with a frozen margarita, reveling in my newfound freedom.

The huckster ethic is also hypertrophied. No one wants to stop you from doing very much of anything; they just want to separate you from as much money as possible while you’re doing it. You cannot swing a cat without hitting someone who is trying to sell you tickets to a show, or lure you into their bar, or get you to hop on their luxury bus to check out the brothels across the county line. (We were two couples, and we really enjoyed hearing the brothel hucksters suggest that this would be good “couples therapy.” We did not, however, make an appointment with the doctor.)

As it happened, I was reading an old school yarn from the Edwardian era called "Stover at Yale," and it seems appropriate that I was in Las Vegas when I stumbled upon this passage: “For the first time, a little appalled, he felt the weight of the seriousness, the deadly seriousness of the American spirit, which seizes on everything that is competition and transforms it, with the savage fanaticism of its race, for success.” That spirit would be very wearing if it were everywhere and all the time, but it has a sort of naked charm when consumed in small doses.

Now for the creepy aspects: There are cameras everywhere. In the casinos, obviously, but also on the streetlights, the walls and every overhang. When I asked the cab driver whether there was much crime on the Strip, he laughed and pointed to the cameras. “No crime,” he said. “No point. Cameras everywhere.”

So I left Vegas with a question: Is the friendly police state the price of the freedom to drink and gamble with abandon?Whatever your position on vice industries, they are heavily associated with crime, even where they are legal. Drinking makes people both violent and vulnerable; gambling presents an almost irresistible temptation to cheating and theft.  Las Vegas has Disneyfied libertinism. But to do so, it employs armies of security guards and acres of surveillance cameras that are always and everywhere recording your every move.

This is a question I’ve asked myself before, funnily enough, when arguing with anarcho-capitalists. For those who do not follow the ins and outs of libertarian sectarianism, anarcho-capitalists want to replace the state with private institutions, with insurance companies and private security forces substituting for most current government functions. But when I’ve probed into the actual mechanics of this, I’ve often found that anarcho-capitalists end up describing something unpleasantly like a police state, only not called “the government” -- like giving insurance companies and private police forces the ability to perform warrantless at-will searches in order to prosecute crimes. One way or another, society is going to protect itself against theft and violence, rape and murder, and putting those tools in the hands of private parties causes much the same trouble as they do in the hands of the police.

That’s not an argument against more liberty, of course. It’s just a suggestion that there may be trade-offs: The price of safely enjoying our vices may be surrendering some of our civil liberties, either to the government or to private parties. And in this case, what happens in Vegas probably won’t stay there. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Megan McArdle at mmcardle3@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Brooke Sample at bsample1@bloomberg.net