April 07, 2004

The Public's Vices

WE SUPPOSE WE SHOULD START by saying we originally intended this post to solely address the issue of sexual vice, given the Blogosphere's collective gasp of horror over the Government's plans to strike hard against pornographers.

But then we got to thinking about things, and we realized this was merely one facet of a much larger issue: namely, America's regulation of vice in the aggregate. Like most Americans, we have indulged in pretty much all of them at one time or another in our life, so why not take a broader look at the whole enchilada?

Should Government try to outlaw things or rather regulate them? How has technology played a role in the proliferation of vice? And lastly, what is the best way for society to combat vice -- not merely sexual vice, but smoking and drinking and narcotics and gambling along with it?

Those things are, we could say, The Big Five these days. We admit that it is a broad classification, but for now we are operating under a broad premise: that it is better and healthier for people to abstain from these things than to indulge in them. Furthermore, to deal with such things piecemeal -- focusing solely on, say, sexual vice -- is to necessarily dilute the questions at hand.

Now, some readers may wonder why we use the word vice to describe all these activities. Our thinking is this: we are using the word to describe behaviors that were once thought -- and which many still consider -- to be generally bad things. After all, in polite society one does not afford respect to a pornographer or a narcotics dealer or a professional card-sharp. For despite the fact these three occupations are fulfilling roles which the free market has created, no one engaged in these three trades is the type of person one would want one's child going out with on a date. It is as simple as that.

In that vein, we must admit we are a bit baffled at one line of thought sometimes implied in arguments over regulating such things: that the vices in question are actually good. We honestly don't know what to make of that. Perhaps we simply need to get out more on the weekends, but we don't fundamentally get -- for instance -- the celebration of pornography for pornography's sake. This is somewhat like praising the wonders of cocaine, or the restorative powers of tobacco.

It seems to us there is a difference in saying one does not want the Government to have any say as to whether we read and watch pornography in the privacy of our own homes, and cheering the fact the stuff exists. Were a distinction between the two arguments made more often, we would be more able to accept the former on an intellectual level.

The Question of Moderation

Of course the tricky part to all this is that so much of it is a matter of degree. After all, one or two glasses of wine with dinner is not going to hurt anyone, unless the person having the wine is pregnant. The occasional quarter poker game is not going to drive anyone into bankruptcy. A person who has a cigarette during an evening out will suffer few health consequences, and the same goes for the person who tokes up in his living room. Finally, we sincerely doubt that the guy who goes to the tiny back room of his local video store on the odd Saturday night is in real danger of developing unnatural sexual impluses. And we can see where some would find, if not virtue, a bit of good in all of these things. But we'll get to that in a bit.

On the other hand, we note that when all these doings are taken to the extreme, bad things do happen. A person who smokes two packs of cigarettes a day is pretty much asking for a respirator and chemotherapy later in life. A person who drinks to excess faces a whole host of problems, ranging from health concerns to broken relationships. A person who gambles too often faces the same consequences, and also deprives his family of the money they need to survive. A habitual narcotics user has a whole host of the same issues; so too a person addicted to sex and/or pornography.

So we think it unfortunate that people who are partial to pornography -- or any of the above things -- tend to paper over these very real troubles. Now, roughly a quarter of Americans smoke; roughly six percent have a drink problem; perhaps three percent are addicted to narcotics; six percent have a gambling problem; and roughly six to eight percent are sex addicts, the last according to these folks.

Of course, as one might expect, there is often an overlap of these things; but our point here is merely to show that all this is no joke. What for most is merely a harmless activity or even a petty vice puts others on the road to self-destruction.

The Question of Prohibition

So then. If millions of Americans are running about engaging in risky behaviors all the time, what do we do about it?

This is a tough question, and admittedly not one for which we have a pat answer. On the one hand, we know that if the Government makes something illegal, it may make it less likely for a person to engage in or consume that something. On the other, we know that if a vice is illegal, no petty law will stop one from fulfilling one's desire for that vice.

So in this regard, we are at a crossroads.

Obviously, there are some activities which are illegal for a reason, because they are so beyond the pale that all well-adjusted people find them abhorrent, unnatural and thoroughly immoral. Examples include pimping, the production of pornography involving minors, and bestiality. Then there are those things which are illegal because the dangers to society overwhelm any possible benefits, such as heroin.

But of course those extreme activities are not the issue here. The questions at hand, rather, are these: should the fact some folks are alcoholic prevent others from drinking? And should the fact some folks are gambling addicts prevent others from playing cards, and so on for pornography, etc.?

Of course not. The poor unfortunate enslaved to his addiction will not hesitate to find extra-legal ways to sate his habit, so to us it doesn't make sense to forbid these things to others. Furthermore, at the end of the day, the addict is the only one who can get himself out of his addiction. Then, after he has excised it from his soul, it is his responsibility to avoid that which got him in such trouble in the first place. We would add that it would help matters if society as a whole had a bit more compassion for such folks, but we have been glad to see that on an individual level, folks who need help get support.

The Question of Regulation

Technology, of course, has done more than anything to minimize the Government's effectiveness at suppressing vice. New York may want smokers to pay $7 per pack for cigarettes, but a smoker can simply off-shore his order to a duty-free outfit. A city's police might bust up the occasional private casino, but the Internet now lets one gamble from one's home. The VCR had the amazing effect of decimating both the local vice squad and the pornographic theatre; and now, the Internet has made it possible for people to get their hands on pRon*%# any time they want.

However -- we do think, even in this day and age, there are plenty of effective ways to prevent folks from engaging in bad habits. Obviously, there is the law; but we question how that can truly do anything other than knock out the most egregious violators of it. To us, the success of vice-suppression efforts rests on de-glamorizing the institutions causing all the problems.

Thus far, such efforts have failed -- and will continue to fail -- because they are lame. For instance, we can assure you that when we lived in California, those goddamned anti-smoking advertisements only served to annoy us. Such public-service efforts must not be cutesy. They must be graphic and they must be raw and they must be brutal if they have any chance at getting through.

The movie "Trainspotting," for instance, instilled a life-long fear of heroin in us because it was so raw in depicting the ravages of that poison. Therefore, we don't see why the Government doesn't apply the same principles to gambling (showing a casino floor at 7 a.m. on a Tuesday), to alcohol (showing the problems of family life with an alcoholic) and lastly, to pornography (showing its most hard-core consumers instead of those portrayed in it).

Now, we realize this is not a perfect solution; it may not even be the right one. After all, we certainly don't want to demonize these things so much that we force them entirely underground; that would not do folks much good at all, as we see it. Nor is that something we particularly want, because we enjoy our vices as much as anyone. But if we were somehow able to push these activities into a purely private and purely adult sphere, we do think the social health of our society would be vastly improved.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at April 7, 2004 09:31 AM | TrackBack