I do not understand why many liberals who favor legalizing marijuana, oppose censorship of hard-core pornography, support the right of terminally ill, pain-wracked people to assisted suicide and pride themselves on their belief in individuals’ rights to govern their own lives become vehement prohibitionists when it comes to gambling.
Of course opposition to repealing laws that make it criminal for adults to make bets with their own money is not confined to people on the left. The most important law protecting America from the grave threat of grown men and women playing poker on the Internet came to us thanks to the right.
In 2006, the U.S. House passed this bill over the objections of a few of us — most vocally Ron Paul and me. It was not widely expected even to come up in the Senate. But Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist was planning to run for president in 2008, and he sought to increase support from religious conservatives, an important element of the Republican primary electorate. So he used his leverage to add the House prohibition to an unrelated bill that had to pass. There was no Senate vote.
I am not an expert on Republican primary dynamics, so this might have helped him, but we’ll never know because another Frist legislative effort that pleased religious conservatives outraged the rest of the country. This was his leadership in enacting the law overruling the decision of Terri Schiavo’s husband, which he has said reflected her previously expressed wishes, to stop the feedings that kept her breathing but with no other sign of life.
The federal and state courts immediately nullified this gross violation of the separation of powers and individual rights. The public expressed deep anger at the intrusion by Congress and President George W. Bush, and the primary congressional author, Frist, suffered great political damage.
This became fatal for him when an autopsy showed that contrary to Frist’s assertion that he had observed her eyes functioning, she had been brain dead and her optic nerves had disintegrated.
While I strongly disagreed with the Schiavo bill, and debated Pat Boone on the subject on TV, I did understand the religious argument for it.
I am less clear about the basis for the anti-gambling sentiment. Some religious opponents invoke the Bible (although I have not yet found the footnote that permits bingo). But those of my liberal friends who regard gambling as a social blight also believe that enacting specific religious rules into law violates the First Amendment.
So why do some liberal backers of Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick lament his entirely sensible policy to allow the establishment of casinos as a betrayal of liberalism?
The arguments they rely on are blatantly inconsistent with liberalism’s overall approach.
One is that low-income people must be restrained from making poor choices about spending what little money they have. This position is very much at odds with liberal hostility to very restrictive rules governing food stamp purchases or otherwise closely monitoring the spending of recipients of public assistance.
The next assertion some liberals apply only to fight casinos is an extension of this, specifically that government has the duty not simply to prevent people from harming others, but also to keep people from activity that will render them less able to meet their responsibilities.
People who gamble, this argument says, may lose the money to support their families or pay their debts. But logically this asserts for government a far-reaching control over most aspects of our lives. People go too deeply in debt for many reasons. People endanger their health in many ways. Liberals generally defend the principle set forth by John Stuart Mill in the classic work “On Liberty”: In what directly affects others, the law can govern me. Where I am making choices that are primarily about my own life, the law should not intrude.
Finally, there is the view that gambling must be illegal for adults because it is not suitable for children, and because a small minority of grown-ups will become addicted to it. This is a position absolutely antithetical to a free society. It is a justification among other things for strict censorship of expression, and for prohibition of alcoholic beverages.
Many things are bad for children or cause adults to get addicted. What of video games that some play obsessively to the neglect of work or school? Or people focused to the point of distraction by social media, or shopaholics?
There is no logical way to confine an exception to Mill’s principle only to the voluntary choice of adults to make bets with their own money.
In the end, I believe the fact is that gambling is to some liberals what pornography is to some conservatives: an activity that they find distasteful, and consequently are ready to outlaw the decision by others to pursue it.
Barney Frank is a retired congressman and author of landmark legislation. He divides his time between Maine and Massachusetts.