Between the Lines: Barney's Rubble

"Click it or ticket," barks the young, strapping Massachusetts State Trooper on the TV.

For me, the state's ads warning drivers to fasten their seatbelts or risk being slapped with a substantial fine are about as objectionable as they come. I don't need the lecture; I use my seatbelt whenever I drive and not just because, to quote the kicker of this obnoxious public service announcement, "it's the law."

But what the hell: the law requiring motorists to fasten their safety belts is well-intended, aimed at saving lives and holding down costs that would, in many cases, fall on the public health system or be passed along in the form of higher health care premiums.

So I get over it. I forgive the government its impertinent tone and accept the limitation on my personal freedom in service of the common good.

Yes, government can act like an overbearing parent. Mandatory vehicle inspections and motorcycle helmet laws; bans on cigarette smoking in public places and detailed restrictions telling bars and package stores when they can open and who they can sell booze to; laws against marijuana and other so-called "street" drugs; gun laws; for each of these laws and hundreds more, you can find someone preaching a libertarian argument against it—and losing the argument.

In the end, most of us accept the premise that personal freedom ends when it begins to impinge on others. So while I find the prohibition of, say, marijuana wholly objectionable, I can at least appreciate the logic of the public health argument against legalization: why bring extra stresses on the health system by adding another vice to the list of ones we already permit?

 

Rare is the politician who stands resolutely for personal freedom and against the government's effort to limit some of that freedom for the good of the greater society. Republicans and conservative Democrats will whine endlessly that government regulations are bad for business and deprive consumers of choices, all while eagerly opposing, say, abortion. Hypocrisy? Oh, yes, but that's politics.

Conservatives hardly have a corner on the hypocrisy market. Gov. Deval Patrick—a private sector émigré who at least pretended to have progressive leanings while running for office last fall—made tax policy a cornerstone of his campaign, only to run like a scalded dog from the tax issue into the warm embrace of the casino industry. In pushing resort casinos as a form of lucrative tax-generating economic development, Patrick not only wimps out on his promise to repeal 16 years of Republican tax policy, but does so while fully acknowledging that his gambling halls will harm about 5 percent of the state's residents, increasing gambling addiction and the myriad attending social ills, including poverty, domestic violence and child neglect. Some progressive, this Patrick fellow.

Of those who've recently jumped on Deval's casino wagon, U.S. Rep. Barney Frank (D-Newton) has offered rhetoric that is both obnoxious and soaked in hypocrisy. Frank, known for his steadfast support of gun control among other forms of government regulation, argues that casinos are, get this, a civil rights issue.

"The main reason for allowing [casino gaming] is: human beings like to do it," Frank told reporters last week. He went on to chide people who he characterized as affluent liberals for trying to tell people what they can and can't do with their money.

If Frank's Libertarian-style support for casinos seems at odds with his broader legislative record, it is nevertheless quite in line with his ongoing efforts, as chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, to loosen federal restrictions on Internet gambling. Pop his name into a Google search with the word "casino" and you'll soon learn that Frank is the newfound darling of the gambling industry, not just in the United States, but worldwide.

In a recent speech before the House, he compared the bans on gambling to Prohibition. He insisted that since a gambler doesn't hurt anyone but himself, he shouldn't be prohibited from engaging in what he described as a "recreational activity." To do otherwise, he said, amounts to "social, cultural authoritarianism."

Yet even within his effort to free the industry, and bettors, from particular bans, Frank is still in favor of certain regulations. His Internet gaming bill, for example, would prohibit gambling on professional sports.

In other words, the government ought not tell you how to spend your money, unless you want to make an electronic wager on the Red Sox this week.

Author: Tom Vannah

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