With Gambling, Personal Freedom Is Always the Best Bet, Says Barney Frank

There are many vices in the U.S. Those that hurt others must be stopped. Online gaming need not be.


By Barney Frank

Massachusetts Democrat and chairman of the House Financial Services Committee There is one major reason that leads me to oppose the ban on Internet gambling: It is an activity that adult Americans enjoy and that does no conceivable harm to anybody else.

There are people who believe that it is appropriate to use the law to impose on others personal, religious, or moral tenets, whether or not they deal with behavior that impinges on others. Obviously, society has an obligation to enforce those aspects of morality that protect people from others. Murder, robbery, fraud, and arson, for example, should be harshly prosecuted. But personal behavior that harms no one ought to be within the sphere of personal autonomy.

Some antigambling advocates inaccurately assert that if we do not outlaw gambling, we are encouraging it. The notion that human activity should be divided between those things that are illegal and those things that the government should be considered to be encouraging is a dire threat to liberty. The vast majority of human activities should be neither encouraged nor outlawed by the government but rather be left entirely to the choice of free individuals.

Several other negative arguments exist. The least serious comes from the professional sports leagues, which express their horror that if Internet gambling were allowed, people might actually bet on sports games. The bill I proposed prohibits betting on sports through the Internet, but the notion that the people who run professional sports leagues are shocked by the idea that people might actually bet on their games has to rank as one of the least credible in human history. Indeed, one of the major shortcomings of the current law is precisely that it prohibits human behavior that in fact harms no one. Thus, it winds up doing more to discredit the law than to discourage the activity.

This also applies to one of the worst arguments I ever heard made by one of the best members of Congress with whom I have served. He said on the floor of the House when this bill was first voted on that it was legitimate to ban Internet gambling because it added nothing to the gross domestic product. The notion that individual choices and personal freedom have to be justified on the grounds that they contribute to the gross domestic product is of course a serious threat to individual liberty.

More serious is the argument that online gambling could lead to underage people getting themselves into trouble financially. Fortunately, we do have ways of requiring that activities accessible through the Internet have an enforceable age limit. If we were to prohibit from the Internet anything that people under a certain age should not do and could abuse, the Internet would be a very boring place. If we were to ban every activity that is suitable only for adults because of the possibility that some underage people might access these activities, we would have substantially diminished our freedom as adults.

Moreover, Congress is now reforming credit card practices in measures meant to severely restrict credit cards being sent to college students and further reduce the likelihood of credit card debt for people under 18.

(Even if Internet gambling is not allowed, young people with unrestricted access to credit cards will very often find ways to get themselves into a lot of trouble.)

There is also the argument that adults can become addicts. The principle here is the same as with regard to young people: To ban an activity in which the great majority of adults are able to engage responsibly because a small percentage will abuse it is to diminish freedom. Those who are addicted are the ones most likely to engage in the activity whether or not it is illegal, so the legal prohibition generally prevents more legitimate use of any activity than the abuse of it.

Finally, we were told by the Bush administration that online gambling was a problem because it could lead to drug-money laundering and smuggling for terrorists. There is, of course, virtually no evidence of this. The Bush administration owed its religious conservative base opposition to gambling, and it is, naturally, a problem for some conservatives who profess to be critical of the "nanny state" to justify this extreme example of nannyism. So we got this argument thrust at us about drug smuggling and terrorism. In fact, that same argument could apply to virtually anything done on the Internet because you could use any legitimate activity for such a cover: There have been cases of which I am aware of organized crime opening up bricks-and-mortar cleaning establishments solely for that purpose, and in one case, I remember the annoyance of those who were running the place at the fact that potential customers actually were bringing in dirty clothes and asking that they be cleaned.