On April 15th, federal authorities busted the three largest online gambling websites in the U.S., PokerStars, Full Tilt Poker, and Absolute Poker. The feds charged 11 people involved with these sites with bank fraud, illegal gambling, and using banks to process the billions of dollars earned from this illegal activity.
This comes in the midst of multiple recent federal prosecutions of crimes that have very little to do with protecting the public or violations of person or property. As Conor Friedersdorf points out in The Atlantic, the Department of Justice (and nearly half of the United States Senate) believes that it is extremely urgent to spend $55 million trying baseball legend Barry Bonds, cases of "obscenity" that ultimately take years to prosecute, and immigration and drug enforcement (which together make up 70% of their cases).
This recent surge in a witch hunt for "crimes" that do not actually harm any third party is a frightening sign for the future of individual liberty, the proper role of law in society, and the taxpayers who are footing the bill for these investigations.
In a free society, government and law exist to protect the rights of individuals from exercising their liberty and bringing to justice those who in their "pursuit of happiness" commit harm to others in the process. Punishing aggression, fraud, theft, murder, rape, and pollution all fit into the necessary restrictions on liberty precisely because these actions violate the freedom and security of others.
What federal prosecutors are currently engaged in, however, with the prosecution of online gambling and the other activities mentioned above amounts to a gross violation of injustice and a warped version of law and order. These activities are victimless crimes, and without a victim, there can be no crime.
Societies can (and do) have moral problems with victimless crimes like gambling, drug use, prostitution, and "obscene" pornography, and these are a sign of a healthy culture. These activities can be physically damaging and incredibly addictive, but making them against the law not only violates the classical liberal principle of justice, but actually increases these vices.
Alcohol prohibition turned America into drunks and bootleggers, current drug prohibition turns a manageable problem into a national epidemic, and government's current restrictive regulation and taxation of cigarettes is creating an increasingly violent tobacco black market.
Because ultimately, law is force, and force can only be justified in self-defense or in the punishment of someone who has violated the property rights and/or freedom of another individual. When law oversteps these boundaries, moral busybodies — who always find their way to the halls of government power — enforce their "morality" on society and pave the path to disorder and injustice with their supposed good intentions.
From a practical standpoint, in this modern age of constant technological innovation and the horizontal interconnectedness of the Internet, the government is ultimately undermatched in its pursuit of victimless criminals. The marketplace always finds a way to provide people with the services they desire, like a river that flows effortlessly around obstacles in its path. All laws against consensual acts that don't harm third parties do is create black markets with immense profits that attract the most violent and ruthless gangs.
We may see certain behavior as sinful, but using coercive state power to deal with vice is counterproductive, immoral, and antithetical to a free and tolerant society.
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