04.28.2011 0

Online Gaming: A Question of Liberty

By Victor Morawski – Recent actions by the U.S. Attorney’s Office of New York citing three large online poker sites for alleged violations of the 2006 Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act (UIGEA) have once again thrust Internet gaming (or “gambling”, if you prefer) into the forefront of public discussion.

Focusing here on the moral case surrounding laws dealing with Internet gaming itself, I will leave untouched issues of fraud and money laundering also raised by the case.

Believing  that the UIGEA has overstepped its bounds in ways inconsistent with basic American values of liberty and individual rights, I am interested specifically in arguments supporting overturning the UIGEA in favor of alternative legislation regulating not forbidding Internet gaming.

Rep. Barney Frank, defending his own May of 2009 bill (cosponsored by Rep. Ron Paul) used John Stuart Mill’s observation that, “the only freedom which deserves the name is that of pursuing our own good in our own way, so long as we do not attempt to deprive others of theirs…” The morally optimal choice because members of society as a whole will be “greater gainers” by allowing others to “live as seems good to themselves” than by compelling them to live in a manner which “seems good to the rest” of their fellow citizens but not to them, it favors allowing others the liberty of pursuing online gaming.

Conservatives, however, prefer arguments for liberty based on natural rights rather than society’s greatest good, which Utilitarians like Mill rejected.

Thomas Jefferson gave such an argument in a document written toward the end of his life.  Focused mainly on morally defending lotteries — he was petitioning the legislature for the right to use one to pay his debts by selling land — it features important observations on other games of chance.

For him, if there is an argument supporting society’s prohibiting games of chance, it is not a moral one.

Noting the “common idea that games of chance are immoral” he asks, what is chance other than our own ignorance of all the causes involved in producing a future event?  While knowing why a loaded die turns its light side up, simply “[n]ot knowing why a particular side of an unloaded die turns up, cannot make the act of throwing it, or of betting on it, immoral.”  And he goes on, “If we consider games of chance immoral, then every pursuit of human industry [like sailing, construction, hunting, and, especially farming] is immoral; for [all are] subject to chance….”

Yet Jefferson thought there is a relevant distinction among games of chance between “those which produce something useful to society” and those which do not. We all have a natural right to pursue any one of the former as our means of livelihood.

Of the latter are “games with cards, dice, billiards” and though “the pursuit of them is a matter of natural right” he defends society’s right “to suppress the pursuit [of them] altogether, and the natural right of following it” as there are individuals who may have an “irresistible bent” to pursue them in a self-destructive manor, injuring themselves and their families.

It may step in to protect “the family and the party himself” as it would in cases involving the insane. This parallel may justify the state’s stepping in and restricting the natural right of the compulsive gambler to pursue games of chance but does not support the blanket prohibition and suppression of that right for citizens of society in general, as Jefferson believed.  The same reasoning would back a law forbidding farming because some in society are inclined toward food addictions.

His endorsement is baffling since Jefferson himself often gambled at backgammon, a game with dice, recording his losses and winnings. It is no counter that farming produces something useful to society while poker and backgammon do not as that line cannot be drawn as sharply as Jefferson thought.  Where games involving cards and dice are part of a gaming industry supplying jobs to hundreds and economic support to entire communities, his distinction seems outmoded, irrelevant and even trite.

Arguments requiring such games to justify their existence based on whether they “produce something useful to society” are wrong-headed and misdirected from the beginning because they ignore the main reason why most ordinary players pursue them: their intrinsic value as a source of enjoyment and personal challenge, if not income.  They need no justification beyond this.

By the way, in the interest of full disclosure, I direct the Baltimore Backgammon Club and have a free series of Backgammon teaching videos at http://www.monkeysee.com/play/11192-backgammon .

Victor Morawski, professor at Coppin State University, is a Liberty Features Syndicated writer for Americans for Limited Government.

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