Bob Goodlatte says online gambling is illegal, and he wants to ban it. He sees no contradiction between these two positions.

The Virginia Republican is co-author of a bill approved yesterday by the House of Representatives that threatens operators of online casinos and betting parlors with a five-year prison sentence. The legislation, which the Senate has not considered yet, also requires banks and credit card companies to block payments to such sites.

Goodlatte says "it is time to shine a bright light on these illegal sites and bring a quick end to illegal gambling on the Internet." Yet he concedes that "under current federal law, it is unclear whether using the Internet to operate a gambling business is illegal."

Confused? You're not the only one. The online gambling ban, which dictates what adults may do with their own money on their own computers in their own homes, is part of what Republicans proudly call their "American Values Agenda." Evidently those values do not include privacy, freedom of choice, individual responsibility, or free markets.

Goodlatte wants us to know he likes the Internet just fine—as long as no one uses it to do anything of which he disapproves. "The Internet has transformed the way we communicate, how we work, the things we buy and the way we buy them," he says. It "has created thousands of new businesses, tens of thousands of new jobs and made our lives more efficient." But it also has brought "some unfortunate challenges" such as online gambling, the prohibition of which "is a critical first step in eliminating this scourge."

Given how people who are not Bob Goodlatte actually use the Internet, it is striking that his list of benefits does not include any reference to entertainment. According to Goodlatte, communicating, working, buying, creating businesses and jobs, and increasing efficiency are all well and good. But anything that is simply fun should be viewed with suspicion, since it could turn out to be an "unfortunate challenge" or, worse, a "scourge."

One man's scourge, of course, is another's weekend diversion. The fact that some people have trouble keeping this diversion in its proper place does not justify banning it, any more than the fact that some people indulge in excessive drinking, snacking, shopping, jogging, and TV watching justifies banning those activities.

"These offshore, fly-by-night Internet gambling operators," Goodlatte complains, "are unlicensed, untaxed and unregulated and are sucking billions of dollars out of the United States." He fails to mention that the U.S. Justice Department has driven these businesses offshore by threatening to prosecute their owners under the Wire Act of 1961, which prohibits using "a wire communication facility" for betting on sports.

Far from being fly-by-night operators, many gambling sites are licensed, taxed, and regulated by foreign governments that have less of a hangup about letting people use the Internet to play poker. But if Goodlatte wants the licensing, taxing, and regulating to occur in the U.S., banning the whole $12-billion-a-year industry, which draws about half its customers from this country, may not be the best way to go about it.

You can't even give Goodlatte credit for being a consistent moralistic busybody. His bill, co-authored by Rep. Jim Leach (R-Iowa), makes exceptions for lucrative state lotteries and the politically influential horse racing industry.

It seems government sponsorship renders what would otherwise be a "scourge" as wholesome as the Postal Service, Amtrak, and the Interstate Highway System. And horses are so beautiful and majestic that naturally you can bet on them, online or off. But not on dogs; that would be crazy.

Goodlatte's bill likewise leaves untouched gambling on riverboats, on Indian reservations, and in cities such as Las Vegas and Atlantic City. It's one thing to engage in this distasteful activity out in the open, quite another to do so in the privacy of one's home.

© Copyright 2006 by Creators Syndicate Inc.