Vice, vice, baby: Legalize the sin or punish the sinner?

SAUDI ARABIA calls it the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice. Here we have laws, or "there oughta be a law," or toothless statutes that show up on the books and in trivia filler columns in the newspaper. Who decides what's a vice? Dead people, generally.

And those dead folks tell us vice involves marijuana, guns — and then the really intimate ones — abortion, homosexuality, adultery. I'm talking about the edge stuff, where you don't talk too loud about liking something. Remember when people got blackmailed about gay affairs? Yes, that is happening right now to someone you kinda know.

But there almost was a law, recently. It's a good example.

Last year, a bill made it through the House of Representatives (but no further) that would have prohibited U.S.

financial institutions from acting as payment systems for Americans who gamble online. In essence, the 109th Congress' H.R.4411 would have stopped U.S. residents from using their credit card companies and banks to play poker on the Net.

But people love to gamble. So, as Daniel Davies pointed out in the British newspaper the Guardian at the time, they'd just go underground. They'd learn to use offshore banks, services that already exist. And more sites would spring up to cosset their now

illicit tastes; think a less scrupulous PayPal.

As Davies wrote: "If a generation of Americans have to learn how to set up an offshore account, fund it, make payments through intermediaries to a poker Web site and then repatriate their winnings, then they will have learned how to carry out the placement, layering and integration (colloquially, 'wash, rinse and spin') operations of money laundering. Having learned these skills, people are unlikely to restrict their use entirely to the poker industry. It is hard to imagine, too, that they wouldn't notice that, while the money is sitting in their offshore structures, it is out of the sight of the tax man."

We've heard the "if you outlaw x..." slogan so many times it's lost its teeth. But here it is again. If you criminalize the mildly undesirable, then regular folks drift into nasty society.

We want to expand our experiences — to thrill and chill with ecstasy, affairs and roulette. We have been fornicating, drugging and gambling for thousands of years. We will not stamp such things out with shunning or jailing. For the person who's decent and normal except for that little predilection: do you really want to alienate her? To make her feel unwanted? Do you want to push her into the underground, where mobsters, demagogues and other sharks rule?

Legitimize the use, or demonize the users?

It's so easy to think about the good that comes from punishment. But hundreds of tiny bonds invisibly tie a person into her community, and we're all better off if she feels like a member. But there's something in the way we think that makes it hard to see the benefits of the thousand weak ties. We see big quick ugly/shiny things better than we see erosion and accumulation.

It gets more obvious when you see political moderates turn into radicals. The cycle of marginalization and radicalization has gotten to Ralph Nader, just as it gets to kids who become martyrs to any cause. Rebels don't conform when you punish them; they rebel harder, especially if they don't have any stake in the stability of their world.

More and more Americans can see the effects of the drug war, the new Prohibition, in this light. Wouldn't America benefit if pot got taxed, FDA-regulated and sold next to snuff instead of meth? Do we really want millions of us regularly thinking like criminals?

I have a much quieter example.

I like flirting. I like thinking that attractive men think I'm attractive. I'm married, yes, but not dead.

But I only find ethical men attractive. And, in the U.S., decent guys don't hit on other guys' wives. So the only passes I get come from sleazebags.

Is this good for me? Will I give up on what is arguably an infidelity? Or will I subconsciously drift toward accepting the attentions of sleazebags? Even if I choose the first option, surely another wife somewhere will take the latter.

The lonely boy learns that gangs give him belonging. The pot smoker learns to hate the cops. The oppressed learns to hate the oppressor.

Maybe, sometimes, the promotion of virtue lies in the toleration of "vice." Or at least in checking our urge to shove out of sight those unpleasant people and their unpleasant desires. How do you banish shadows? With soft, diffuse, warm light.

Sumana Harihareswara writes for Bay Area Living each week. You can write to her at