TCS Daily

Socialism as the Solution

By Arnold Kling - June 20, 2002 12:00 AM

The French have a cliche that goes, "The more things change, the more they remain the same." That saying may be particularly apt for a country where the economy is dominated by a large public sector. Where there is competition, however, we tend to see progress, and things do not remain the same.

For a long time, I have been in favor of a re-alignment of civic responsibilities. Today, our local governments run the schools, and private owners run professional baseball teams. My modest proposal is to reverse those two arrangements.

You see, in education, I would like to see progress. I would like to see the sort of improvements in quality and reductions in cost that take place when private sector competition prevails. Instead, with public schools, the more things change, the more they remain the same -- or get worse.

With baseball, on the other hand, I would rather see continuity than progress. I want to be able to relate the games and the statistics that my daughters encounter to the games and statistics of my own childhood.

The Asterisk of Discontinuity

The issue of continuity in baseball has always been important. On its web site, Sports Illustrated has generously reproduced its story from 1961 concerning the Maris-Mantle pursuit of the home run record. At the time, Babe Ruth held the single-season record with 60 home runs, and it was being threatened by Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris. However, the length of the season had just been extended to 162 games that year, and Commissioner Ford Frick said that unless the home run record was broken within the old span of 154 games the new record could not count. When it took Maris more than 154 games to hit his 60th and 61st home runs, Frick ruled that his record would count, but that it would receive an asterisk. This approach was considered cowardly, and it pleased no one.

Fortunately, the asterisk has not become the standard way of dealing with discontinuity in baseball. Fans realize that in addition to the length of the season, records are affected by differences in ballpark dimensions, changes in the strike zone, and numerous other conditions. Wonks like Bill James devote their lives to trying to come up with adjustments for all these factors. However, even the most sophisticated wonk can only handle a limited amount of discontinuity.

Dealing with Innovation

Over the years, many innovations have been tried in baseball. Some have been accepted, some were rejected, and others are still in an experimental state.
  • In 1947, Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier. The inclusion of black and Latin ballplayers is now widely viewed as having improved the quality of baseball.

  • In 1951, the owner of the St. Louis Browns, Bill Veeck, used a midget in order to take advantage of his small strike zone. Although Eddie Gaedel was allowed to bat once (he walked on four pitches), baseball banned midgets.

  • Metal bats are used in high school and college baseball, but not in the major leagues.

Baseball Under Socialism
Suppose that I could have my wish, and we switched to a capitalist model in education and a socialist model in baseball. How might baseball be improved?

The most important thing that socialized baseball could do is abolish free agency. Fans should be able to form long-term relationships with players on their home-town teams. When I was growing up, we knew that the Cardinals had Gibson and Brock, the Dodgers had Koufax and Wills, and the Giants had Marichal and Mays. And if a team traded players, it did so to try to get better players. Teams did not hold mid-season "fire sales" to trim the payroll.

Baseball players should continue to be highly paid. However, their share of revenue could be determined by a formula. The relative salaries of different players could be based on formulas that take into account individual and team performance.

Today, cities subsidize baseball teams by building stadiums, and private owners get the profits. Under socialism, the cities would get the profits from running the teams.

Socialized baseball will have to deal with all sorts of innovations that threaten continuity.
  • Should hitters be allowed to have eye surgery that gives them superior vision?

  • Should pitchers be allowed to have surgery that gives them unusually strong or flexible arms?

  • Should players be allowed to take drugs that enhance performance?

  • Should players be allowed to take advantage of electronics that enable bats or gloves to track the baseball?

As a fan, I hope that all such innovations are blocked. If it had been up to me, we would have had fewer innovations than in fact have taken place. For instance, I would never have allowed the designated hitter, furry team mascots, or ear-splitting music. That is why I want government to be involved in running baseball. Government is good at resisting change, and resistance to change is what I want for the sport.



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