Over at BigGovernment.com, there’s a seemingly innocuous piece about a subject that isn’t all that big a deal in the overall scheme of things – online poker, and the government’s policy toward the industry over the past several years.
The article’s author, Rich Muny, is a member of the board of directors of the Poker Players’ Alliance, an advocacy group for poker players boasting over one million members. As Muny writes, the PPA came into existence as a reaction to attempts by Republicans in Congress to put a stop to internet gambling. Specifically, the GOP was able to pass a ban on online gambling, the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act of 2006, which became law as a rider to the SAFE Port Act. The UIGEA, a disgraceful piece of legislation, makes it illegal to transfer funds from American financial institutions to Internet gambling sites. But if those sites are for fantasy sports, horse racing or online lotteries, the UIGEA doesn’t apply.
The philosophical underpinnings of the UIGEA as it relates to conservatism are basically nil – this is an intrusive, nanny-state nightmare of a law if there ever was one. It adds a sizable burden on a stretched-thin law enforcement community and it makes outlaws out of hundreds of thousands of productive Americans – most of whom happen to be Republicans!
The UIGEA was bad politics, and it’s also bad policy. The hard-core online poker players will and have opened offshore bank accounts for use in playing money games, and by making online poker illegal the federal government has merely pushed jobs and capital offshore to places like Ireland, England and the Bahamas. So while this move might make it inconvenient for the casual online player, it does very little to attack the problem of the gambling addict that the government says it’s trying to protect from himself.
But this law also picks winners and losers in the gambling industry, which is the kind of abusive government interference in the marketplace that Republicans are supposed to abhor. If you make online gambling illegal, then you push gamblers into the ubiquitous casinos dotting every waterway and Indian reservation from Maine to San Diego, all of which are run by companies with deep pockets and great lobbyists. Or you push them to horse and dog tracks, where the lobbying connections are just as deep-seated and long in the tooth.
In other words, the online gambling sites didn’t buy off enough politicians to become viable. And the older, more established and not particularly wholesome operators in the gambling market, who already have their hooks into enough politicians to have expanded that market into all 50 states, get to leverage their connections into wiping out a competitor.
And so the guy who’d like to spend $20 playing poker for fun online at his house for a while is now going to go to a casino, where he’s going to spend $200. Fantastic call, there.
The effect? Out of necessity created by needless government action, there is now a new lobby group setting up shop in Washington with over a million members. And once that lobby group is able to force open the gates and make online poker legal again, they’ll be spending millions of dollars on lobbyists in an attempt to latch on to tax breaks, subsidies and – most of all – future attempts to ban competitors into the marketplace. Everyone whines about the effect of money in politics; well, you just created a new special interest group which will pump even more money into politics. Good job.
Of course, who benefits most of all from the presence of more lobbyists? Why, politicians of course – they’ve voted themselves the power to regulate or eliminate the livelihood and freedom of a new group of people, who will now supplicate themselves. And given that the world is no richer nor more virtuous now than it was in 2006, where is the proof that society is better off?
Admittedly, this is small potatoes. We’ve got far bigger issues to deal with in America than online poker. But a Republican Party which is apparently trying to recover its brand as the party of liberty and limited government is going to have a hard time convincing many of its newly-minted detractors just three years removed from wiping out a whole industry large enough to attract a million people into a new lobbying group.
This is an example of how the GOP needs to admit the sin, repudiate it and excoriate the other side for its failure to do so. And it needs to do it quickly; with the declining popularity of the Obama administration and Democrats in Congress forcing the other side to cast about for new constituencies and political allies, it’s a matter of time before they seize the issue and turn the 20-million folks in America who are interested in poker into good Democrats. This has already started to happen. Robert Wexler, Barney Frank and Shelley Berkley have already authored bills which would weaken or remove UIGEA’s prohibitions against online poker; invariably something is going to pass.
And when it does, the party which has consistently demonstrated its disregard for individual freedom in America will be able to position itself as a liberator.
Is the above an argument in favor of gambling? No. And if social conservatives want to hold down the amount of gambling that goes on, I think they are not only within their rights to try to convince people not to gamble, they’re probably doing society a service by doing so. But just like those social conservatives rightly howl about the Obama administration’s having declared war on private charities with its nationalization/ACORNization of the volunteer market, the tendency of the big-government right to use the brute force of the state rather than the bully pulpit and the power of education and persuasion to effect social change – but for slightly different ends – is an abuse and a disgraceful hypocrisy for a party which casts itself in favor of limited government.
One day Republicans are going to figure out that the party’s job is to remove government from as many places in American life as possible; and to do so does NOT compromise its desire to encourage responsible and virtuous behavior. The latter has to be promoted on a VOLUNTARY basis through non-governmental and private organizations. Such an approach is consistent with the principles of liberty Americans like about the GOP – see Ronald Reagan’s iconic stature; Reagan was a big believer in leaving people alone – without exposing the party to accusations of bigotry and intolerance. It has the added benefit of allowing for people to opt out of whatever parts of the party’s social agenda they’re not interested in.
One day the GOP will figure this out. On that day, the party will find itself able to build the kind of governing coalition which can save this country.