The homeopathic approach to fixing loopholes

Paul Raven @ 10-01-2011

Here’s an interesting minor story which throws a light on matters far larger: someone discovers a software glitch in casino slot machines that allows him to win big money without any tampering, and he does exactly that, to the alleged tune of US$1.4million. Cue his arrest and trial for “650 felony counts of theft, criminal conspiracy, computer trespassing and other charges” [via TechDirt].

Now, for a start, I have very little sympathy for casinos in general, and that may be colouring my judgement somewhat. But as far as I’m concerned, this guy has done nothing more illegal than picking up money he saw dropped on the floor. Sure, the highest moral ground might have been to return the money to its rightful owners… but when its rightful owners already have a great deal of other money (obtained by exploiting the statistical illiteracy and flawed psychology of the average person), well, let’s just say my cup of sympathy runneth not over.

Moral arguments aside, though, this story is indicative of a common phenomenon wherein the system encourages us to pillory those who take advantage of its flaws but does little to address the flaws themselves. Compare with the current protests here in the UK over big-ticket tax evaders: lots of public shaming of the evaders themselves (which I don’t think is necessarily a bad thing), but comparatively little pushing for fixing the perfectly legitimate (if morally dubious) loopholes that allow it to happen.

The cynic in me suspects a lot of our ire stems from a gut feeling best summed up as “why not me?”, and as such we want to punish the transgressors for getting what we didn’t (or avoiding what we couldn’t). Our discontent is misdirected, and the underlying problem goes unfixed… which ends up serving the interests of those best placed to take advantage of it, who are usually those already holding a handful of aces.

We try to treat the symptoms, but the disease reigns unchecked.