THE NEW YORK TIMES
By CHARLES MURRAY
Published: October 19, 2006
LAST week President Bush signed a law that will try to impede online gambling by prohibiting American banks from transferring money to gambling sites. Most Americans probably didn’t notice or care, but it may do significant political damage to the Republicans this fall and long-term damage to Americans’ respect for the law.
So, a month before a major election, the Republicans have allied themselves with a scattering of voters who are upset by online gambling and have outraged the millions who love it. Furthermore, judging from many hours of online chat with Internet poker players, I am willing to bet (if you’ll pardon the expression) that the outraged millions are disproportionately electricians, insurance agents, police officers, mid-level managers, truck drivers, small-business owners — that is, disproportionately Republicans and Reagan Democrats.
In the short term, this law all by itself could add a few more Democratic Congressional seats in the fall elections. We are talking about a lot of people (an estimated 23 million Americans gamble online) who are angry enough to vote on the basis of this one issue, and they blame Republicans.
In the long term, something more ominous is at work. If a free society is to work, the vast majority of citizens must reflexively obey the law not because they fear punishment, but because they accept that the rule of law makes society possible. That reflexive law-abidingness is reinforced when the laws are limited to core objectives that enjoy consensus support, even though people may disagree on means.
Thus society is weakened every time a law is passed that large numbers of reasonable, responsible citizens think is stupid. Such laws invite good citizens to choose knowingly to break the law, confident that they are doing nothing morally wrong.
The reaction to Prohibition, the 20th century’s stupidest law, is the archetypal case. But the radical expansion of government throughout the last century has created many more.
For example, all employers are confronted with rules and regulations from Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission that they regard with contempt — not because they cut into profits, but because they are, simply, stupid. They impede employers yet provide no collateral social benefit. And so employers treat the stupid regulations as obstructions to be fudged or ignored. When they have to comply, they do not see compliance as the right thing to do, but as placating an agency that will hurt them otherwise.
The same thing applies to lesser degrees to all of us who find ourselves doing things that we know are pointless (think of various aspects of tax law) only because we fear attracting a bureaucracy’s attention. For millions of Americans, our day-to-day relationship with government is increasingly like paying protection to the Mafia — keeping it off our backs while we get on with our lives.
The temptation for good citizens to ignore a stupid law is encouraged when it is unenforceable. In this, the attempt to ban Internet gambling is exemplary. One of the four sites where I play poker has blocked United States customers because of the law, but the other three are functioning as usual and are confident that they can continue to do so. They are not in America, and it is absurdly easy to devise ways of transferring money from American bank accounts to institutions abroad and thence to gambling sites.
And so the federal government once again has acted in a way that will fail to achieve its objective while alienating large numbers of citizens who see themselves as having done nothing wrong. The libertarian part of me is heartened by this, hoping that a new political coalition will start to return government to its proper functions. But the civic-minded part of me is apprehensive. Reflexive loyalty to the rule of law is an indispensable cultural asset. The more honest citizens who take for granted that they are breaking the law, the more their loyalty to the law, and to the government that creates it, is eroded.
Charles Murray is a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.
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