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When it comes to sin, we seem to make the same mistakes over and over.

Harmful Choices

How should a virtuous society cope with the common human vices? Prohibit them in a crusade to revolutionize human nature? Or try to accommodate and control in the least damaging way?

Still mired in Puritanism, Americans have made a succession of harmful choices.

For Puritans, of course, hypocrisy is the natural adjustment to vice. We've tended, for example, to leave laws against blasphemy, obscenity and sodomy on the books in the humiliatingly self-evident hope they'll be ignored. Invariably, the oddball prosecution occurs, the law exposes itself to ridicule, and the accused undergo needless suffering.

One Georgia sodomy case made it all the way to the Supreme Court a few years ago, where the state's right to put citizens in prison for having oral sex was reaffirmed. The Puritan/hypocrite model was likewise reaffirmed.

Prostitution is in similar shape. Again, laws prohibiting consensual commercial sex stay on the books, but only squeak forth to truly embarrass everyone during the occasional "clean up." These are invariably initiated by ambitious politicians persecuting the vulnerable street variety of sex workers. More discreet and expensive "escort" sex workers generally remain "out of sight, out of jail." (Heidi Fleiss excepted.) Rather than some honest accommodation, like Amsterdam's red light district or even the peculiar arrangements existing in Nevada, the Puritan model "rules," even while openly flouted.

It is strange that this model characterizes man as naturally sinful, yet remains so determined to hold him to a "zero tolerance" standard respecting ancient and common vices like sex, gambling and intoxication.

Perhaps this absurd contradiction lies at the heart of our poor decision-making, most evident where we have made active accommodations.

Gambling is a vice we've actively accommodated, but in the most harmful manner. Impoverished geographical areas, as well as impoverished areas in public budgets like education, have recently opted to profit from the ancient human weakness for easy money. Why should organized crime run "the numbers" when we can give the game some zippy marketable name and greatly decrease any odd of winning?

The mob still gives better odds, but the convenience store lottery ticket is so ... convenient.

We have outdone the mob in one area: advertising. The population is manipulated with millions spent on promotions, special events, raw media power. Odds no real gambler would accept are sold as exciting: small risks promising spectacular sums. Lotteries, along with horse and dog racing, sports betting, riverboats, casinos — have literally addicted the modern tax base, and susceptible citizens, to gambling.

And, to some extent, the infection has spread throughout the economy.

Our current fascination with "day trading" has millions of Americans betting the farm on a royal flush portfolio. We now have a boom industry of "24/7" online trading. And, while online, they're just a couple of clicks away from countless virtual casinos.

We might have quietly accepted that, invariably, some folks will want to gamble, and set up controlled environments within which gaming could be supervised and problem gamblers identified and assisted. Instead, we've chosen to let the vice run riot at the very center of government and the economy — to the extent that it is now supposedly essential for educating our children, the suckers of tomorrow.

We've wrestled notoriously with drug use all this century, with the Puritans gaining full sway in 1919.

Prohibition somewhat depressed drinking, even as it bankrolled the mafia, turned millions of otherwise honest citizens into criminals and corrupted the law into a laughingstock.

Prohibition was repealed for alcohol in 1933, only to be applied to marijuana a mere four years later. When, during the '60s, segments of the largest American generation in history opted for marijuana over alcohol, the predictable problems ensued and have continued ever since, as though Prohibition had taught us nothing.

Further, what accommodation we have made has been perverse. Out of all the pharmacopoeia of intoxicants available to humanity, we've chosen the two most toxic: tobacco and alcohol, and, until very recently, given them laissez faire in the marketplace, extending even to the addicting of children.

Consider the 1998 annual American mortality figures for drugs from the National Institute on Drug Abuse: tobacco: 400,000, alcohol: 100,000, prescription drugs: 20,000, caffeine: 2,000, aspirin: 500, marijuana 0. Yet which one is illegal?

Government can best reduce the harm of inevitable human vice by adopting the role of educator and regulator. Instead, we've alternately chosen Puritanical Prohibitor and Devil's Little Helper. Where we've had sense enough to make accommodations, our choice has too often been to throw up our hands and throw open the gates of commerce to the most hurtful options available — this, when mature and realistic alternatives have long existed elsewhere.

The Puritan model simply runs counter both to good public health and common sense. To maintain the upper hand on vice, we need to think more of intelligence as a virtue.

Travis Charbeneau is a free-lance writer who lives in Richmond.

Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.

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