Steve Chapman

The other day, a citizen went before a House committee and urged its members to stop their burdensome interference with her business. "At its most basic level," said Annie Duke, "the issue before this committee is personal freedom, the right of individual Americans to do what they want in the privacy of their homes without the intrusion of government."

I know what you're expecting: At that point, the politicians all had a good laugh and told her to get lost so they could get back to meddling in people's lives.

But no. Not only did they hear out the winner of the National Heads-Up Poker Championship, they did exactly what she suggested. The committee voted to lift the federal ban on Internet poker and other online gambling, while approving a measure to tax and regulate it.

This happened over the objections of Rep. Spencer Bachus, R-Ala., who expressed shock that his colleagues would "open casinos in every home and every bedroom and every dorm room, and on every iPhone, every BlackBerry, every laptop."

There are two good responses to that complaint. The first came from Financial Services Committee Chairman Barney Frank, taking a position one rarely associates with Massachusetts Democrats: "Some adults will spend their money foolishly, but it is not the purpose of the federal government to prevent them legally from doing it."

The second is: The casinos are already wide open everywhere you look. As Duke noted, unlimited online gambling already awaits "any American with a broadband connection and a checking account." Law or no, the United States is the biggest online betting market on the planet. Americans wager an estimated $6 billion a year in cyberspace.

Four years ago, Congress tried to stamp out online betting by forbidding banks from transferring funds to Internet gambling sites. But it was spitting into a gale. "Gamblers have used online payment processors, phone-based deposits and prepaid credit cards to circumvent the ban," reports The New York Times.

It's an old problem: When lots of people are eager to enter transactions with other people that do no direct harm to anyone else, the government can't realistically hope to prevent them. All the ban accomplishes is to push the industry offshore, leaving U.S. customers more vulnerable to fraud.

Well, that's not all it accomplishes. It also encourages Americans to do their gambling elsewhere: going to casinos (now found in 33 states), wagering at off-track parlors or buying lottery tickets peddled by state monopolies. The lotteries are a motive for governments to oppose legalization of online gambling, since it might take away customers looking for better odds.


Steve Chapman

Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune.
 

 
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