Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Another stupid law in the making

Why in the world is the government intruding itself into the business of online gambling? Doesn't it grow harder for citizens to take "the law" seriously when bureaucracies attempt, first to monitor everyone's trivial pursuits, and then to punish engagement in such pursuits? In a New York Times article ("The GOP's Bad Bet," 10/19/06), social scientist Charles Murray warns that such intrusion can do "long-term damage to Americans' respect for the law." He claims that it is not worth acquiescing to those "scattering" of voters who are upset by the existence of online gambling, while outraging the millions who love it, and writes:

If a free society is to work, the vast majority of citizens must reflexively obey the law not because they fear punishment, but because they accept that the rule of law makes society possible. That reflexive law-abidingness is reinforced when the laws are limited to core objectives that enjoy consensus support, even though people may disagree on means.

Thus society is weakened every time a law is passed that large numbers of reasonable, responsible citizens think is stupid. Such laws invite good citizens to choose knowingly to break the law, confident that they are doing nothing morally wrong. The reaction to Prohibition, the 20th century's stupidest law, is the archetypal case. But the radical expansion of government throughout the last century has created many more. ...

The temptation for good citizens to ignore a stupid law is encouraged when it is unenforceable. In this, the attempt to ban Internet gambling is exemplary. One of the four sites where I play poker has blocked United States customers because of the law, but the other three are functioning as usual and are confident that they can continue to do so. They are not in America, and it is absurdly easy to devise ways of transferring money from American bank accounts to institutions abroad and thence to gambling sites.

And so the federal government once again has acted in a way that will fail to achieve its objective while alienating large numbers of citizens who see themselves as having done nothing wrong. ... Reflexive loyalty to the rule of law is an indispensable cultural asset. The more honest citizens who take for granted that they are breaking the law, the more their loyalty to the law, and to the government that creates it, is eroded.

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In his syndicated column, Professor Walter Williams offers his views on gambling restrictions and what he calls Congressional nannies, those who would protect us from ourselves. In this case, he cites the House of Representatives' failure to pass a law prohibiting Internet gambling. The law failed this time around, however, its sponsors are primed to reintroduce the bill. Williams writes:

Congress' constitutional contempt is nothing new, but this latest act is quite a step down the slippery slope toward greater control of our lives. Let's look at some of their justifications. Rep. Goodlatte says, "Internet gambling is a scourge on our society. It causes innumerable problems in our society." Rep. John Duncan, R-Tenn., says, "The Internet is addictive for many people anyway, and online gambling can be doubly addictive." Most other justifications follow the same line of reasoning; namely, there are Americans who don't know what's good for them, and it's the job of Congress to stop them from personal indiscretions. ...

If the Internet Gambling Prohibition Act is approved, it will become a precedent for congressional control over other aspects of the Internet and an important loss in our liberty. Let's follow the money and ask who benefits should the law be passed. What about legal gambling establishments in Las Vegas, Atlantic City and elsewhere? From their revenue point of view, they'd be happy to see less online gambling competition.

What about federal, state and local governments? Online gambling, most of which is offshore, doesn't create any tax revenue for them. The bill focuses on online games such as poker, blackjack and sports betting, but exempts taxable state-regulated gambling such as lotteries and horse racing. ... The only thing the act will accomplish is, like Prohibition, make criminals out of otherwise law-abiding people.

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