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The Government's Monopoly on Gambling

By Froma Harrop

The FBI is shocked, SHOCKED that Americans will illegally bet an estimated $2.4 billion on March Madness college basketball. Perhaps they'll round up the usual suspects -- all several million of them.

You see, gambling is immoral, except when done through lotteries, keno, off-track betting, Indian casinos, riverboat casinos, dog races, horse races, jai-alai frontons, card rooms and other wagering venues blessed by the states. And betting on college sports is especially evil, unless you do it in Las Vegas, whose casinos expect to make about $90 million off March Madness alone.

I have long opposed the proliferation of gambling, but the time's come to give up. Let the state-approved slot machines multiply -- but also the online gambling sites, most of which happen to be (who cares anymore?) illegal.

The monopoly of gambling has become more immoral than the activity itself. Wherever a politician can deliver the right to virtually print money, corruption breeds. The most colorful example is lobbyist-crook Jack Abramoff, who made millions defrauding the tribes that hired him to guard their casino monopolies.

It's against the law to bet on sporting events, with Nevada the grandfathered exception. Casinos in other states want a piece of the action, but Nevada has opposed changing the law, for obvious reasons. And efforts to simply outlaw gambling on college games have failed, again with Nevada leading the opposition.

The NCAA basketball tournament is second only to the Super Bowl as the biggest sports-gambling event. An estimated $4 billion in wagers will be made during March Madness, with online betting sites expected to scoop up a third of the total. That can't be good news either for the state-approved gambling ventures or the underworld ones. Internet gambling, most of it run from overseas, is still in its infancy. And it is as unstoppable as it is illegal.

Not that Washington hasn't tried to stifle the online competition. The U.S. Justice Department, for example, ordered American radio and television stations not to run ads for Internet gambling sites. But Antigua dragged the United States before the World Trade Organization over the matter. The Caribbean nation, home to many of the Websites, argued that the United States was violating free-trade agreements to protect the industry at home. The WTO agreed with Antigua.

Congress is now considering the Internet Gambling Prohibition Act. It would stop banks and credit card companies from processing transactions with overseas betting sites. One of the sponsors, Arizona Sen. Jon Kyl, produced a report three years ago explaining why a similar bill was necessary -- basically, to protect the social fabric.

Internet betting "encourages youth gambling," Kyl wrote, and "exacerbates pathological gambling." The report ended with a cymbal crash of hypocrisy: The legislation, Kyl noted, "contains language to ensure the continuation of currently lawful Internet gambling by the Indian tribes." It comes as no surprise that the latest version does the same.

Either we let Americans gamble legally or we don't. The growth of gambling outlets has indeed led to a rise in bankruptcy, suicide, robbery, embezzlement, divorce and other social ills. And state governments fool no one when they fund counseling organizations for people brought low by gambling activities that the states themselves raise revenues from.

But there seems little point in having a Connecticut Council on Problem Gambling when Connecticut has no problem hosting Foxwoods, the biggest slot-machine emporium in the United States, another major casino nearby and a state lottery. Let it be noted that half the people who call the council's hotline have annual incomes of less than $35,000. (Foxwoods now wants to open a slots operation on Philadelphia's riverfront.)

While the proliferation of gambling hurts the weakest members of society, its biggest threat right now is to honest government. Thus, there are two good things about online gambling: One is that it cannibalizes the government-created monopolies. The other is it's not in everyone's face. The office betting pool, though also illegal, shares the merit of leaving politicians out of the transaction.

March Madness will be over in a few days, but the mad rush to carve out exclusive rights to milk the public is year-round. And remember: Half the proposals these days to curb gambling are really about protecting a gambling monopoly.

Copyright 2006 Creators Syndicate

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