Leave the Gamblers Alone

Why can't adults be left to do what we want to do?

Some of us like to gamble. Americans bet a hundred million dollars every day, and that's just at legal places like Las Vegas and Indian reservations. Much more is bet illegally.

So authorities crack down. They raided a VFW branch that ran a poker game for charity. They ban lotteries, political futures markets, and sports betting. They raid truck stops to confiscate video poker machines. Why?

On my Fox Business News show tonight, Chad Hills of Focus on the Family says: "These machines have been shown to be extremely addictive. That's a huge concern, primarily for kids, because it's hard to keep them away."

Well, I certainly agree kids shouldn't gamble, and some people do wreck their lives. But why can't adults be left to do what we want to do?

Hills and Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), both eager to ban gambling, talk about "addiction" leading to bankruptcy, crime, and suicide.

I'm skeptical. People are responsible for the consequences of their bad habits. I thought Focus on the Family and conservatives like Kyl believed in self-responsibility.

On my show, professional poker player Andy Bloch points out that, legal or not, gambling already goes on everywhere. Prohibition doesn't rid society of an activity. It drives it underground, where it's less visible and less subject to respectable social conventions.

As for people getting into trouble, Bloch noted that after online gaming was legalized in the United Kingdom, "they found that there was no significant increase in the number of problem gamblers."

Hills, on the other hand, claims that a 2006 anti-Internet gaming law reduced gambling. "People say this drives gambling underground," he added. "I'm like, good, drive it underground."

I point out that people still find the gambling sites.

"But it makes it extremely difficult. You have to be fairly desperate to do it."

I doubt that anyone who wants to gamble illegally has trouble doing it. And let's not forget the official corruption that black markets encourage. Law-enforcement people take bribes to look the other way. It's an old story.

Hills claims that the 1999 National Gambling Impact Study concluded that 15 million Americans are problem and pathological gamblers. But like many people who want to ban things, he distorts the data. The study's 15 million "problem gamblers" included people who might get in trouble.

"Ninety-nine percent of the American public has no problem with gambling," Bloch says. "They should have the freedom to gamble if they want to gamble online. There is no casino that is being forced into people's homes."

By the way, Hills said he'd oppose legal gambling even if it weren't associated with wrecked lives. Why? "Gambling is the art and the science of deception that feeds on the exploitation of human weakness for the sole purpose of monetary gain."

To that, I say, so what? Will they ban the stock market next? Filmmaking is the art and science of deception. Poker is just a game where deception and bluffing are the skills.

For self-responsible adults, gambling can be fun and harmless. A free country is supposed to treat adults as though we are self-responsible. Government should let us learn from our mistakes rather than treat us like children.

Despicably, while government outlaws private gambling (at least that which competes with the well-connected casino interests), it runs its own gambling operations: state lotteries. And what a scam they are! States offer terrible odds. The evil casinos take about 1.4 percent of each bet at the craps table. State lotteries take 50 percent of each bet. Compounding the damage, states spend tax money to promote their lotteries to the poor, who are led to believe that the lottery, rather than hard work, is the route to becoming millionaires. Rich people buy few tickets.

So governments push their own inferior games while outlawing better ones run by private business. That's insane. People gamble anyway, criminals get involved, and by forcing Internet gambling offshore, America loses a $12 billion industry.

In On Liberty, John Stuart Mill wrote, "Over himself and over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign."

Sovereign. Hear that, busybody politicians?

John Stossel is host of "Stossel" on the Fox Business Network. He's the author of "Give Me a Break" and of "Myth, Lies, and Downright Stupidity." To find out more about John Stossel, visit his site at johnstossel.com. This column first appeared at Reason.com.

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