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Treating Us Like Children

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It’s getting harder and harder to imagine a Republican keeping a straight face while proclaiming the GOP to be the party of limited government and personal liberty.

The latest reason? The Republican-controlled Senate recently voted 90-10 to outlaw gambling over the Internet. The prohibition, tagged onto an appropriations bill, would impose a penalty of three months in prison and a $500 fine for anyone caught using his computer to gamble in the privacy of his own home. The amendment was the brainchild of Sen. Jon Kyl, Republican of Arizona and a man, no doubt, who prides himself on his belief in freedom and the American way.

As usual, the prohibition is being defended in the name of protecting children. Apparently, the government must go to extraordinary lengths, even invading the sanctuary of the home, to keep children from becoming addicted to online gambling.

We are led to believe that children are commonly sitting in front of their PCs, their parents’ credit cards in hand, and gambling away the family savings. But how, pray tell, are children getting those credit cards in the first place? Do parents really leave them lying around? This has the strong aroma of myth, the kind of fantastic story that’s told and retold whenever politicians get it into their heads to control some peaceful activity.

One wonders how the Senators think this law would be enforced. Since the Internet is borderless, an online casino might be anywhere in the world and outside of U.S. jurisdiction. That leaves only the individual gamblers to go after. But there are ways to protect anonymity on the Net, so it is hard to see how anyone would be caught, unless the government plans to engage in unprecedented intrusion into the peaceful lives of citizens in their own homes. The mind boggles at the prospects.

It has already been noticed that it would be odd to arrest a resident of Nevada, or any other state in which casino gambling is legal, for doing online what it is perfectly all right for him to do on terra firma. But then, politicians don’t let mere inconsistencies get in their way.

We may assume that if the operators of cyber-casinos had a strong lobby, this amendment would never have been offered. As originally drafted, the amendment would have harmed the horse-racing industry, which is involved in interstate wagering, but the prohibition was rewritten to leave that form of gambling alone. It’s funny how an alleged matter of principle-protecting children in this case-can allow for exceptions in the face of a strongly organized interest. Only a suspicious mind would wonder what went on there.

We might also point out that the most prominent purveyor of gambling these days is the government itself. How many people played the recent government-operated Power Ball lottery that dangled a quarter-billion dollar prize before their eyes?

But the children! This is a bit odd coming from self-styled advocates of freedom. Children, of course, are vulnerable in many ways, but in America that was not supposed to be the all-purpose excuse for telling adults what they can’t do. Freedom would be an awfully hollow idea if we prohibited grown-ups from living as they pleased on grounds that children must be protected. Yet that is the direction in which we are headed.

With the development of the Internet, conservatives have certainly shown themselves to be liberty’s fair-weather friends. They have been far too eager to stifle the development of the Net’s rich and varied potential on the grounds that children will gamble or see naked bodies, as if kids didn’t do those things long before the PC was invented. It seems that conservatives are just as intolerant as the welfare-state liberals are about the freedom to make decisions beyond the prying eyes of the state.

The invocation of child welfare is particularly ill-suited to politicians who claim to support the integrity of the family. You really can’t have it both ways. If the family is to thrive, it must be protected from do-gooders of any political persuasion who would strip it of its most vital functions, such as the moral education of the children.

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    Sheldon Richman is vice president of The Future of Freedom Foundation and editor of FFF's monthly journal, Future of Freedom. For 15 years he was editor of The Freeman, published by the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington, New York. He is the author of FFF's award-winning book Separating School & State: How to Liberate America's Families; Your Money or Your Life: Why We Must Abolish the Income Tax; and Tethered Citizens: Time to Repeal the Welfare State. Calling for the abolition, not the reform, of public schooling. Separating School & State has become a landmark book in both libertarian and educational circles. In his column in the Financial Times, Michael Prowse wrote: "I recommend a subversive tract, Separating School & State by Sheldon Richman of the Cato Institute, a Washington think tank... . I also think that Mr. Richman is right to fear that state education undermines personal responsibility..." Sheldon's articles on economic policy, education, civil liberties, American history, foreign policy, and the Middle East have appeared in the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, American Scholar, Chicago Tribune, USA Today, Washington Times, The American Conservative, Insight, Cato Policy Report, Journal of Economic Development, The Freeman, The World & I, Reason, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, Middle East Policy, Liberty magazine, and other publications. He is a contributor to the The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. A former newspaper reporter and senior editor at the Cato Institute and the Institute for Humane Studies, Sheldon is a graduate of Temple University in Philadelphia. He blogs at Free Association. Send him e-mail.