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Editorial: A liberal gamble too far

Betting is being driven by the internet and it is easier than ever to lose everything

Self-destructive addiction is one of the markers of the boundaries of liberalism. As a proudly liberal newspaper, The Independent on Sunday recognises that gambling is one of those questions on which individualism should be balanced by collective welfare. This was one of several questions on which Tony Blair's government got the balance wrong. On gambling and 24-hour drinking, ministers failed to see the social costs of the laudable instinct to trust the people and free the market.

For most of those who indulge, betting and alcohol are a source of pleasure. For some, the intensity of the desire to escape poverty and unhappiness, either by winning lots of money or by drink-induced oblivion, is less cheerful, but not a matter of state regulation. For another group of people, however, they are the focus of an addiction that causes misery for others.

In fact, 24-hour drinking was mostly a misnomer and the problems of alcoholism and drink-related violence are reducing, although this government is right to look at minimum pricing to try to reduce them further.

Gambling addiction, on the other hand, is a serious and growing problem in Britain, on which we carry a special report today. Most visibly, television advertising, allowed by the Gambling Act 2005, is everywhere, and betting shops are the only growth sector apart from payday lenders on the high street.

At one end of the gambling business is the National Lottery, fairly harmless but still a regressive tax on the hopes of the poor; at the other are the slot machines known as fixed-odds betting terminals, which blight some of the poorest parts of the country. But now the growth of betting is being driven by the internet.

Online gambling is the dark side of the liberating forces of new technology and the free market. This is pulling a whole new class of vulnerable people into the gravitational field of problem gambling.

We can now see that the "liberalisation" of the Blair government was not given enough thought. Plenty of people warned of the dangers, as our report today recalls, but they were ignored by ministers blithely assuming that the future would take care of itself. They underestimated the risks. But gambling online is easy; it is private, freed of social norms; and on credit cards, which can seem like unreal money.

Thus it is easier than ever to lose everything overnight. And ministers may have been a soft touch for company lobbyists, offering the chance for Labour to appear business-friendly with the rhetoric of trusting the sovereign consumer. They failed to see how the free market could allow cynical operators to exploit the poor and hopeless.

Or perhaps ministers simply thought that they were powerless in the face of technological change that knows no borders.

Gambling can, however, be constrained: betting companies advertising on television have to operate in the UK, and they are more of a problem than offshore companies, which cannot advertise.

Gordon Brown, the son of a Presbyterian minister, reversed his predecessor's decision on super-casinos, but it should be clear that further reversals are needed. The Government must recognise that gambling poses the problem of addiction, more akin to a medical crisis than a theoretical question of free-market economics or of individual liberty.