No Spin Zone
Stossel's Column: Puritanical Government
By: John StosselJune 26, 2013

People say America is a free country. But what if you want to drink, have a cigarette or make a bet? Government often says "no" to protect us from ourselves.

It's as if the government is still run by the Puritans who settled this land four centuries ago. They said pleasure and luxury are sinful.

Today's government has a better argument when it seeks to restrict activities that might harm others, but I notice that even then, it often focuses more on things that upset modern-day Puritans.

Drinking and driving can be fatal. But government data show that sleeplessness and driving are just as deadly. Having kids in the back seat, looking at GPS map instructions, fiddling with the radio and eating while driving are often deadly, too.

But sleeplessness doesn't seem as decadent and irresponsible as drinking. Nor is there an easy way for police to test for such discretions -- no breathalyzer test for excessive radio tuning.

Why is the DUI test all about alcohol level, rather than behavior? Government keeps lowering legal blood-alcohol levels -- recently from .10 to .08 -- and now they want to lower it to .05. But some people are good drivers even after a drink or two. It would be better to punish people for "reckless" driving.

Alcohol-related driving deaths are down. Groups like MADD (Mothers Against Drunk Driving) credit tougher DUI laws, but it's not clear that they are right.

Maybe people are simply more aware of the dangers, thanks to publicity from groups like MADD. Safer car designs helped, too. Non-alcohol-related driving deaths are also down.

Stats that some cite to claim alcohol is the cause of a third of highway accidents are misleading. That just means that a third of the people had alcohol in their systems; it doesn't necessarily mean alcohol caused the accident.

I don't suggest that drinking and driving is safe or smart. But the puritanical obsession with drinking distracts us from other ways we could make driving safer.

At least DUI laws seek to protect people from others. But government puritans go well beyond that, banning activities that harm only the individual engaged in them -- like gambling.

Polls show 70 percent of you support the current ban on Internet gambling.

Why? It's true, for some people, gambling becomes addictive. Some wreck their lives. But for most people, gambling is entertainment, practice in using strategy and an excuse to socialize. A little risk is fun. And the laws don't stop the activity. They drive it underground, where it's run by criminals.

If we banned every activity that had the potential to become addictive, we'd have to ban fatty foods, sex, alcohol and investing in the stock market. Life means risk.

Sometimes puritans want to ban things without any evidence that the activity is harmful. After every mass shooting, someone wants to tax, or ban, violent video games.

Yet violent offenses by youth fell by more than half over the past two decades, while video game sales doubled. If there's a causal relationship, maybe playing video games prevents kids from behaving violently.

Japan spends much more on violent video games than the U.S., but its crime rate is much lower. Maybe the Japanese get it out of their system through make-believe? I don't know. But I do know that a lack of evidence rarely stops the puritans.

The puritanical panics of today may look silly someday. In the 1950s, a psychiatrist testified that Superman comic books inspire juvenile delinquency.

After hearing about those moral panics, you might feel like relaxing with a cold beer. But don't try buying one from a convenience store in Indiana. The state requires that the beer be sold warm.

In theory, warm beer will discourage drinking on the road.

I doubt that such laws help. Perhaps puritanical laws don't have to make sense. They just have to leave us feeling righteous because we've done something to crack down on bad behavior.

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