Libertarian Lessons from the Super Bowl

Laurence M. Vance – June 15, 2022

Even most non-sports fans like me know that the Super Bowl is the annual championship game of the National Football League (NFL). It is one of the world’s most watched sporting events, and it has the most expensive commercials (lately $7 million for 30 seconds). Some people watch the game just to see the commercials and the halftime show. Super Bowl Sunday in February is also one of the most gluttonous days of the year. In the most recent Super Bowl — number LVI, played in Inglewood, California — the Los Angeles Rams defeated the Cincinnati Bengals by a score of 23 to 20. The important lessons to be learned from this game, however, have nothing to do with linebackers, wide receivers, quarterbacks, penalties, touchdowns, sacks, field goals, blitzes, punts, or interceptions, but instead have to do with libertarianism.

Behind the scenes 

While the Super Bowl festivities were taking place, the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department (LASD), joined by more than 80 federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies and task forces, arrested 214 sex workers and 201 sex seekers during the seventh annual “Operation Reclaim and Rebuild.” The ostensible mission of the operation was “combating human trafficking.” Yet, according to the LASD, the vast majority of those arrested were attempting to engage in consensual sexual activities. Over 400 of the arrests involved misdemeanor prostitution, loitering for prostitution, escorting without a license suspicions, or supervising prostitution. Only seven of the 49 felony arrests involved unspecified sexual felonies related to a minor.

Up until May of 2018, before the Supreme Court struck down the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act of 1992, betting on most sporting events was illegal across the country, except in a few states. Since that time, a number of states have legalized online sports betting. But not Texas. This is why wealthy businessman Jim McIngvale had to drive two hours from Houston to Louisiana to place a $4.5 million bet on the Cincinnati Bengals to win the Super Bowl. He later placed a similar bet for $5 million. In Louisiana, one can legally bet on sports using a mobile device, which is what McIngvale did. It has been estimated that over 31 million people placed a bet on the Super Bowl. PlayUSA (a sports betting news website) estimated that people would wager $1 billion on the Super Bowl. And that doesn’t count “illegal” wagers.

Even though California was the first state to legalize medical marijuana, in 1996, the NFL and the network that televised the Super Bowl, NBC, refused an attempt by a company located an hour from the stadium, Weedmaps — founded in 2008 to help California medical marijuana users locate dispensaries — to run a commercial that Weedmaps CEO Chris Beals said would have tried to “push the dialogue forward around cannabis.” Although the NFL and NBC prohibit marijuana-related commercials, hard liquor has been advertised during the Super Bowl since 2017. Anheuser-Busch’s Super Bowl beer commercials are well-known and celebrated. The NFL last year announced that it would no longer test players for marijuana during the off-season and is even funding research on marijuana’s health benefits.

I did not see the Super Bowl halftime show, but I am told that it featured famous hip hop singers, including Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, Mary J. Blige, and Eminem. The New York Times called it “a halftime spectacular heavy on nostalgia and California pride.” Some prominent conservatives, who seem to have forgotten the existence of the First Amendment, had a rather different opinion. Charlie Kirk, co-founder and executive director of Turning Point USA, remarked: “The NFL is now the league of sexual anarchy. This halftime show should not be allowed on television.” Brigitte Gabriel, founder of ACT! for America, commented: “The Super Bowl halftime show was basically pornography on television. Absolutely disgusting. It shouldn’t have been permitted for cable television.”

The Super Bowl was played in the most expensive stadium ever constructed. But what is even more incredible is that SoFi Stadium was built entirely with private funds. The new $5 billion stadium — which is also rented out to another NFL team, the San Diego Chargers — is part of a complex with a concert hall, a shopping center, office buildings, condos, a luxury hotel, and a 25-acre park that altogether is three times larger than nearby Disneyland. The owner of the Los Angeles Rams, billionaire businessman Stan Kroenke, helped move the Rams from Los Angeles to St. Louis in 1995. In St. Louis, the Rams played in the Edward Jones Dome, a $280 million stadium built with government subsidies. Even though the St. Louis stadium had not yet been paid for, Kroenke moved the Rams back to Los Angeles to begin the 2016 football season, playing at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum until the new SoFi Stadium was completed.

So, what do prostitution, gambling, marijuana, the First Amendment, and government subsidies have to do with libertarianism?

Prostitution

The libertarian case against prostitution laws is straightforward. It is not the responsibility of government to legislate morality. It is not the proper role of government to concern itself with how people choose to make a living as long as their actions don’t infringe upon the rights of others. What consenting adults do on private property is none of the government’s business as long as their actions are voluntary and peaceful. Not only is it not the job of government to arrest prostitutes or those who solicit them, it is likewise not the duty of government to reduce prostitution; provide prostitutes with housing, job training and social services; help women avoid a life of prostitution; or deter men from buying sexual services.

Now, none of that means that libertarians favor prostitution. They would neither persuade any woman to be a prostitute nor encourage any man to hire one. None of this means that libertarians are ambivalent to­ward prostitution. They sympathize with the plight of women who feel they are trapped in a life of prostitution. And they are not naïve about prostitution. They recognize that in some cases, it might involve violence against women, exploitation of women, or oppression of women. But they just don’t automatically assume that the woman offering her body for sale is always forced, always exploited, always oppressed.

None of this means that libertarians think prostitution is wholesome. They might describe it as immoral and sinful just like a liberal or conservative would. None of this means that libertarians are ignorant about the pitfalls of prostitution. They recognize that it can be risky and hazardous to one’s mental and physical health. None of this means that libertarians dismiss real crimes that might be committed in conjunction with prostitution. They fully support laws against kidnapping, forced prostitution, human trafficking, public sex, public nudity, slavery, rape, sexual assault, child prostitution, and sexual abuse. None of this means that libertarians favor prostitution over property rights. They don’t defend trespassing, loitering, or other violations of property rights that might occur when prostitutes seek or service customers.

Libertarians also argue that laws against prostitution are illogical, inconsistent, and arbitrary. It is highly illogical to make something legal to give away for free but illegal to charge for it. If it is legal for consenting adults to have sex as often as they want and with as many different partners as they want, then why should it be illegal if one of the parties pays the other for it? If it is legal for people to be paid to have sex — in front of a director, camera, and crew — then why should it be illegal for people to be paid to have sex in the privacy of their car, home, or hotel room?

It is very inconsistent for someone to not be in favor of the government’s outlawing of pornographic movies, strip clubs, and massage parlors but at the same time support the government’s outlawing of prostitution. Likewise, it is incredibly arbitrary for someone to not be in favor of the government’s outlawing of fornication, adultery, cohabitation, communal living, and swinging and at the same time support the government’s outlawing of prostitution.

Gambling

The libertarian case against gambling laws is quite simple. There shouldn’t be any such laws. This is especially true at the federal level. Although the federal government has a myriad of laws regarding gambling, the Constitution nowhere authorizes the federal government to license, regulate, discourage, control, or prohibit any form of gambling — including online gambling. Just like the Constitution nowhere authorizes the federal government to regulate or prohibit any other vice or bad habit. Americans who support gambling laws, at least on the federal level, are anti-American. Those who contend that we should have gambling laws at the federal level are contending against the Founding Fathers, the framers of the Constitution, federalism, and the Constitution itself.

It is not the purpose of government at any level to prevent people from wasting their money, taking a financial risk, having bad habits, or making bad decisions. It is a perversion of government to do so. The purpose of government is supposed to be for the protection of life, liberty, and property from the violence or fraud of others. Laws against gambling are impossible to reconcile with a limited government and a free society.

But, it is argued, gambling is not just a bad habit, it is immoral, a vice, and a sin. It can be psychologically addictive and financially ruinous. And because gamblers generally have poor odds of winning, it is a regressive tax on the poor that takes advantage of those least able to afford it. Although these things may all be true, there is a huge difference between opposition to gambling and opposition to gambling laws. One can vehemently oppose all forms of gambling and yet at the same time just as stridently oppose all forms of gambling laws.

Libertarians would argue that everyone has the natural right to gamble as long as they gamble peacefully and consensually and don’t violate the personal or property rights of others. The decision to gamble or not to gamble should always be an individual decision, made on the basis of one’s moral code, religion, risk tolerance, and financial status. It should never be a government decision. In a free society, consenting adults are free to engage in any voluntary activities that are peaceful without government supervision as long as they don’t infringe on the freedom of anyone else. And there is no reason the gambling industry should be governed by special government regulations. The government should not be concerned with regulating or prohibiting any activity that takes place between a willing business and a willing customer. Even more so than prostitution, gambling is a victimless crime.

Marijuana

The libertarian case against marijuana laws parallels in many respects the libertarian case against gambling laws. The federal government considers growing, distributing, buying, selling, possessing, or using marijuana to be a criminal offense, punishable by fines and imprisonment. Yet, the Constitution nowhere authorizes the federal government to criminalize, prohibit, or regulate marijuana in any way. It is, therefore, anti-American to support federal marijuana laws and at the same time express reverence for the Founding Fathers, the Constitution, and the American system of government.

It is not the purpose of government at any level to punish people for partaking of mood-altering or mind-altering substances; to concern itself with anyone’s eating, drinking, or smoking habits; or to regulate, monitor, or restrict people’s consumption, medical, or recreational habits. It logically follows, then, that not only should there not be any laws concerning marijuana, but that there shouldn’t be any laws concerning any other drug. Laws against drugs of any kind are impossible to reconcile with a limited government and a free society.

But, it is argued, marijuana is a gateway drug, and using cocaine, heroin, meth, or fentanyl is dangerous and could even be deadly. Although this is certainly true, since when is it the job of government to keep people from harming themselves? A man’s body belongs to himself — not society, not the state, not some governmental agency, and not some government bureaucrat. And if a man’s body belongs to himself, then he can do what he wants with it. It is simply none of the government’s business what people want to smoke, eat, inhale, snort, or inject into their bodies. As explained by political philosopher John Stuart Mill (1806–1873):

The only freedom which deserves the name is that of pursuing our own good in our own way, so long as we do not attempt to deprive others of theirs, or impede their efforts to obtain it. Each is the proper guardian of his own health, whether bodily, or mental and spiritual.

The gambling industry shouldn’t be governed by special government regulations, and marijuana dispensaries shouldn’t be demonized any more than liquor stores.

The First Amendment

The First Amendment reads as follows: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” When it comes to “the freedom of speech or of the press,” libertarians would say that if you don’t like what is being said or written, then don’t listen to it or read it. However, many conservatives would say that if you hear, see, or read something offensive, then the government should abridge its dissemination.

But it is extremely disingenuous for a conservative to talk out of one side of his mouth about his reverence for the Constitution and limited government and out of the other side to say that the government via the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) or some other agency should prohibit certain things to be broadcast on television that he finds offensive.

The federal government has been granted no authority whatsoever by the Constitution to regulate, monitor, or censor any speech of any kind or any movie, magazine, newspaper, advertisement, photograph, television program, or website. The fact that the content of some of these things might be sexually suggestive or pornographic is irrelevant. This doesn’t mean that the questionable or offensive content is wholesome or harmless, and it doesn’t mean that it is not obscene or immoral. It just means that it is not the business of government to concern itself with what is spoken, published, or broadcast.

Government subsidies

Government subsidies come in a variety of shapes and sizes, all with strings attached, of course. Some of these subsidies are welfare programs for the poor, like Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF), food stamps, or housing subsidies. But others are subsidies for the rich, like subsidies for the arts and humanities or subsidies for sports arenas and stadiums. Although libertarians would say that the government shouldn’t subsidize anything, government subsidies for the rich are the most egregious.

Economists of all stripes are united in their belief that government subsidies for sports venues cost communities more than they deliver in economic benefits. But it doesn’t matter if the millions a municipality spends building a stadium to keep or attract a major league sports team is a good investment, creates jobs, or has a positive economic impact. Sports teams are businesses. They are in the entertainment business. An entertainment business, like any other business, should not be promoted, subsidized, supported, protected, or financed by government any more than any other type of business. And especially when the owners of sports teams are some of the richest Americans. Government has no money of its own. It either prints it, borrows it, or confiscates it from taxpayers. Libertarians would say that sports teams should build their own stadiums, like Stan Kroenke did. Department stores, gas stations, and restaurants don’t depend on government subsidies to build their facilities, and neither should sports teams.

These five lessons are more than enough to show that libertarianism alone is the philosophy of freedom.

Reprinted from The Future of Freedom Foundation. Laurence M. Vance is a columnist and policy advisor for the Future of Freedom Foundation, an associated scholar of the Ludwig von Mises Institute, and a columnist, blogger, and book reviewer at LewRockwell.com. He is the author of Gun Control and the Second AmendmentThe War on Drugs Is a War on Freedom, and War, Empire and the Military: Essays on the Follies of War and U.S. Foreign Policy. His newest books are Free Trade or Protectionism? and The Free Society.

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