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Treating Us like Children

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It’s getting 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, a Republican from Arizona, and a man, no doubt, who prides himself on his belief in freedom and the American way. (At this writing, the House hadn’t approved the amendment.)

As usual, the prohibition is being defended in the name of protecting children. Apparently, the government must go to extraordinary lengths, including 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 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.

One observer has already noted that it would be odd to arrest a cyber-gambler living in 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 behind the scenes.

We might also point out that the most prominent purveyor of gambling these days is the government itself. Yet private gambling frequently offers better odds than state lotteries. I guess government doesn’t want the Internet competing with its own gambling operations.

But we must protect 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 the grounds that children must be protected. Yet that is the direction in which we are headed. The Republicans play the game as well as the Democrats.

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 pictures of naked bodies, as if kids didn’t do those things long before the PC was invented. Conservatives are clearly just as intolerant as 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.

But this is not just about families and children. The position that government can restrict the peaceful activities of adults in order to protect children includes an objectionable view of adults as well. Implicit in that view is that adults are children. An underlying principle of monarchy and other forms of autocracy is that a society is like a family. The autocrat is the father, or head of the family, and the people are his children. That metaphor has arisen many times in the political history of the world. John Locke’s first Treatise of Government was a response to Sir Robert Filmer, who held the paternal theory of the monarchical state.

Much of what government does is intelligible when you keep the sovereign-as-father metaphor in mind. The modern state is based on the infantilization of adults. The parallels are striking. Parents typically don’t let their children use medicine without close supervision. The government doesn’t let adults use many medicines without the permission of a doctor licensed by its authority. Parents don’t let their children use nonmedical drugs, such as marijuana and cocaine. The government doesn’t let adults use those drugs. Parents don’t let their children view pornographic or obscene material. In many places, the government forbids adults to view such material or restricts their viewing it. Parents don’t let their children gamble. Governments in many locations forbid adults to gamble or restrict their gambling. Parents make provision for their children’s future until adulthood. The government makes provision for adults’ futures by taxing them under Social Security. Parents provide medical care for their children. The government provides it for poor and elderly adults and seems intent on providing it or medical insurance to everyone else. Parents educate their children, sometimes requiring them to do things they would rather not do. The government requires adults to send their children to school, if not a government-run school then an institution that satisfies the government’s definition of school.

In all this there is a message: Adults are not really adults. Adults are not responsible. Adults don’t know how to conduct themselves. Adults are in fact children.

Needless to say, this is opposite to the classical liberal, or libertarian, philosophy, which recognizes adulthood and distinguishes it from childhood. Proponents of that philosophy understand that infantilization of adults is contradictory and problematic at many levels. To begin with, if adults are not really adults, then why do we have the concept of children?

Moreover, the advocates of democracy have a big problem in asserting that the state should take responsibility for the well-being of adults. The very premise of democracy is that adults are capable of making wise choices at the ballot box. But if they can’t run their own individual lives, how can they vote intelligently? This seems like a simple question that should have occurred to the paternalists at once. But I haven’t seen them explain it. The only answer I can imagine they would come up with is something like this: When people act privately, they are motivated by narrow self-interest, which leads them to act short-term and childishly. But when they act as part of the democratic polity, through the ballot box, some wiser force takes hold; the general will and public interest emerge in some miraculous way.

This kind of reasoning is found in Rousseau. I don’t find it persuasive. There is no reason to think that people change when they enter the polling booth. There is also no reason to think that people generally act irresponsibly in their private affairs. Some do, but most don’t. If we don’t trust people to conduct their own lives responsibly, I see no reason to trust them with the vote. In fact, I’d sooner trust them in their own affairs than in my affairs and everyone else’s. Running one life has to be easier than choosing on behalf of everyone. At least the errors will have less-widespread consequences.

Democratic paternalism, then, is based on a contradiction. If we can trust people with the vote, we can surely trust them to make decisions for themselves and their children. Saving the children, and saving adults from their own folly, is a bad reason for restricting liberty.

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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.