On ‘We Aren’t in Vegas Anymore’

Ross Douthat of the NYT had an interesting column this AM, ostensibly about the value of taking social policies only to some rational balancing point of benefits and risks, rather than insisting upon one extreme ( total prohibition) or the other ( total laissez-faire permission). While his argument made great sense, it deserves to be expanded, particularly in relation to some of the issues often associated with what is lumped together as the political ‘right.’

What Douthat says about the inevitability of some gambling always existing, and therefor the preferability of reasonable limits and regulation rather than either total prohibition or complete lack of regulation – bet anywhere, anytime, on anything, at any stakes – is well taken. He neglected, though, the logical extension of this argument to some very comparable similar issues; prostitution, for example, or abortion, both of which have been around at least since biblical times despite every effort to universalize their prohibition.

Even positive issues such as freedom of speech are most-effectively handled by a society and legality which do not permit their most extreme expressions (yelling fire in a football stadium being the classic one; intentional libel for financial gain another, or defending one’s castle with a bank of automated machine-gun emplacements). Yet another salient reference would be to freedom of religion, where the reasonable desire to worship without persecution has been stretched into the supposed-right to run businesses and corporations in ways that discriminate and limit the freedom of their employees or their customers. The Citizens United campaign finance decision suggests this list could go on, and on.

What Mr. Douthat was actually – and correctly – warning of is the danger of fundamentalism in any realm.

Whether coming from the supposed ‘left’ (permitting pornography, legalizing marijuana) or the ‘right’ (striking down Roe v. Wade, refusing to put a same-sex statuette on top of a wedding cake), taking any social proposition to its logical extreme is never a good way to make law or public policy, especially in an aspiring democracy which aims to cultivate internal peace and comity.

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