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« Rush to Philosophic Judgment? | Main | Nobel Prize speculations »


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Yes, and all that "healthy food" that rich people consume, omega3 for the brain, fiber for this, vitamin for that. What an unfair advantage!

I think that people care because using steriods/blood-dopping, etc violates a very tacit sense of a "level playing field", or rather, "fair play." Perhaps it is an old "moral" that is still evolving within Western society, taking perhaps another 100 years before we see it as just another strategy.

I care because she violated the rules of track. I have no problem calling her the fastest women ever, but not as a participant in a sport.

Fair play is important in this case because she deprived others of metals for following the rules. This would not matter in a market economy, but we must remember that sports are different. Precisely what matters in sports is how you perform in relation to others rather than absolute performance.

Market = people try to make themselves better
Sports = people try to make themselves better than others.

Fair play is important in sport because cheating changes in what way they are competing. It is precisely why we do not allow baseball teams to use any type of bat they want, because the competition does not include who can design or possess the best bat. Currently track does not include a competition in who can find or use the best mixture of chemicals.

Why should the government care? That is the better question. Private organizations seem good enough already to handle these situations. They might not be perfect, but they caught Landis and took away his title.

I don't want to be "that guy" who makes pedantic corrections, but the quote, attributed to mathematician Paul Erdos, is "A mathematician is a device for turning coffee into theorems."


Do you think that you would have the same level of concern if you discovered that most world-class track athletes are taking some form of performance enhancing drugs? It is my belief, as a former track athlete, that EVERYONE on the world class track and field scene is using performing enhancing drugs. What makes these drugs so appealing, at least in track and field, is not that they make you much faster. They do not. If you are slow prior to taking performance enhancers, then you will quickly learn that that they will not make you fast. Rather, what these drugs do is allow one to perform at an "A+ level" just about every time you step on the track. And in track, like the market, you are only as good as your last performance to customers (in this case, high paying international track associations and track buffs)

Second, track and field is probably a better analogy to the market process than politics (with deference to Buchanan, Wagner, and Tullock). Name recognition is what track and field athletes live off of; just like McDonalds. (How do you get thousands to sit in the stands at Penn Relays unless you have the "big names" advertised.) And McDonalds, similar to any other restaurant, is interested MORE in their name recognition than their "absolute performance;" mostly because their absolute performance (or sales receipts) is mostly dictated by whether or not people think McDonalds has a good product (nowadays connoting a tasty and a healthy product). Think of the new "advertising knocks" on the McDonalds Corp.; with the people pulling up to a drive through requesting a "double chin" and thighs with extra blubber! As a reader of this blog, I am sure that you believe that advertising is an efficient resource allocation.

I have a subtle disagreement with your take on "fair play." As Hayek once wrote, it does not matter if you drive on the left or the right side of the road; as long as everyone drives on the same side. And, in baseball, it should not matter if one uses bat x or bat y, as long as EVERYONE is permitted to use bat x or bat y.

Finally, I do not believe that government or private organizations are solicitous about these drugs being used. "Placarding" Marion Jones is simply the method these international track organizations use to promulgate that their sport is making every effort to ensure purity. Btw, ever wonder why these people are not caught while they are at the acme of their career; selling out stadiums in Europe, and winning the Gold Medals for the U.S.? Seems fishy to me!

My main concern is that the game be enjoyable to watch. When Barry Bonds crushes a home run or Marion Jones runs, it is an amazing thing. I don't care if they were "assisted", sports is supposed to be about giving the fans an amazing display of athleticism, right? These two stars have done just that for their entire careers, and it's a shame how they are now being treated.

I don't condone just any sort of activity by professional athletes and the organizations they work for. I think activities that draw resources into aspects of the game that fans can't enjoy should be prohibited. Belichick's spying fiasco is a perfect example; lots of resources were put into something that none of the fans were aware of. That's just bad sports and bad business.

Hmm... I will play the devil's advocate on this one and throw on the table my own rumblings and musings on this matter:

I agree that there are lots of opportunities today for 'performance enhancement'. But I think that there still is a difference between cosmetic surgery and steroids... although I have to recognize that it may be a fine line indeed in many cases.

I also think it is a mistake to think only in terms of 'utility satisfaction' to judge these situations. I am sort of a dilettante in economic matters (I'm a Political Science PhD candidate), but I do think that the problem of taking to the extreme the utility satisfaction argument is that you may end up loosing sight of a moral dimension that is crucial in human society.

I know that values are extremely difficult to incorporate into economic models and sometimes may be incommensurate, but this do not allows us to simply wish them away. They must be taken seriously (for the good or the bad) and can explain the debate behind the banning of steroids in athletic competition, or the Tour de France, for example.

As far as I understand it, Bob may have a point. People do not see sports only in market terms. Sports' competition may be compared to firm's competition in the market, but they are subject to specific norms and values (again, for the good or the bad) that go beyond the maximization of utility (maybe even the real market competition is subject to such norms). Therefore, some of those norms and values (we may call them moral codes) are concerned with preserving some specific ideals: competition among the participants must be fair, athletes must seek to reach their limits without the help of any enhancement drugs, etc.

Of course we can debate if those ideals make sense in today's world, but the fact still remain that for a large part of the public (and society), they do seem to matter. As David reminds us, Hayek did say that it didn't matter if we drove on the left or right side of the road. But these kind of rules are instrumental in the sense that they only regulate behavior which (in most cases) is devoid of moral content; it doesn't really matter if you drive on the left or the right of the road, so far as everybody does the same (it would be another think if, for instance, society valued the right or the left side for any moral reason). But Hayek also saw the importance of values behind our actions. In my opinion, his defense of the market system, for instance, must be seen not only in instrumental terms (e.g., the market is the most efficient way to organize production and the distribution of scarce resources in a society) but also in moral terms. In this light, the market is not only more efficient, but also the best system to preserve human dignity, happiness and freedom.

That brings us again to the question of why the use of enhancement substances is banned. It may be the case that it is unwise to ban substances which can, in the long run, contribute to make the sport more efficient. But the important point is not if those drugs are more efficient or not (it may be even the case that they are not so efficient if the contribute to the death of the athlete by, for instance, causing cancer), but if they are seen to be good and/or bad for the sport as a whole, such as by contributing to the improvement of society, of the individual, to its freedom, etc. In my opinion, one of the most interesting arguments used by Hayek to defend the market system in his book "Road to Serfdom" was that liberalism and collectivism both shared a similar set of principles or ends, but they radically differed in the means used to reach those ends. Therefore, given specific ends, the choice of means is not neutral; the means must be compatible to the the ends they aim to preserve or promote.

Does the ban on steroids (the means) promote the good of society and/or of the individuals (the ends)? That is a really tough question; but society and individuals seem to think they do, and maybe they did in the past due to other sets of values which have changed since the first Olympic games. Maybe that is why the instrumental argument, based solely on her efficiency or on the marketability of the sport, is simply not enough to defend Marion Jones abuse of illegal substances.

Oh, and it is also important to note that steroids are illegal. Thus, the ban on their use (the means) are also enforced by legal rules which she agreed to abide by every time she was competing. This may be a very legalistic argument, but legal rules have an important role in all this: they make instrumental arguments sometimes irrelevant. It really doesn't matter if law abiding behavior is inefficient, or even of others do not abide by the same rules; for the bad or the good, the weight behind legal rules is not relative or strategic, in the sense that it depends on what others in society do. On the contrary, its weight is absolute, in the sense that they are valid despite what other people do and, specially, because they are closely related to specific values or moral codes in society.

Of course, this may look like an oversimplification of the debate on the interpretation of legal rules; pragmatists may disagree. But it is an interesting way to describe the effect of some legal rules in society. What would be the effects of property rights, for instance, if they could be brushed aside at will?

Following up on Gus's comment, here is a Freiburg-school take on things (which is very similar to what he came up with). One of Viktor Vanberg's favorite examples of Leistungswettbewerb (which I would very, very loosely translate as "purpose-driven competition" or "beneficial competition") is, oddly enough, the idea of a footrace. For the Freiburg folks, there are two types of competition: that which makes the consumer better off and that which harms us. His example of harmful competition would be to allow one runner to hamstring the others so that he is the only runner who can cross the finish line. Beneficial competitive rules, however, allow us to watch a fun and fair race. Thus, it can be in our best interests--and even the best interest of the competititors themselves--to adopt a certain set of ethics or rules and abide by these.

Some of these rules will be coordination game rules (such as, for example, a rule which states in which direction the racers must run) and these are the "eh, doesn't really matter much" rules alluded to above. But not all rules follow this format, and not all rules are interchangable. There are also rules which exist to prevent a prisoner's dilemma from occurring. Steroid testing, at least in theory, can fit in this category. Thinking of a standard prisoner's dilemma, although every participant may theoretically like to race clean and although the fans may want to watch clean matches, using steroids is a strictly dominant strategy. If I'm the only one using them, I may be at a competitive advantage (depending on how effective they actually are); meanwhile, if everybody else is using them, I have to as well or else I'm at a disadvantage. The hard-headed rational character looks at this and decides that it is necessary to violate the implicit moral standard and use steroids.

Now, this is where the assumption takes place, and the level at which an argument should take place: is this a legitimate depiction of the steroid issue? If so, then there ought to be a rule (regardless of difficulties in implementing the rule or how much cheating exists); if not, then there should not be one. The rule itself is abstract and generally applicable, which is exactly what constitutional-level rules should be. No racer is allowed to use steroids, save potentially for some set(s) of circumstances which may be applicable to all. In baseball, for example, anabolic steroids are allowed as a legitimate medical treatment, and every player who has a legitimate medical issue which would require the prescription of steroids would be allowed to use them until such time as the treatment is over.

At any rate, the big question is whether the prisoner's dilemma exists or whether it is a case of apathy or even the idea that steroids are beneficial to events (which would be how I interpret David's comment). Given the fact that pretty much every sport has rules against steroids, as well as general fan reactions to players who have been caught with steroids or a hypothetical steroid situation, that would be evidence that the steroid issue is a prisoner's dilemma. But on the other side, one could argue that the fact that all of these steroid rules are relatively ineptly handled indicates that there is an argument that steroid usage may fall into the category of Leistungswettbewerb and is a beneficial form of competition because they let us see more great performances.

I would personally lean toward the former case--that steroids are a harmful form of competition--based on the medical ramifications and how fans react to usage, but you could also make an argument that fan reactions are a form of cheap talk, and that fans don't really care enough about the issue.

People are ignoring the (failed) attempt through monitoring to get to a higher equilibrium. Assume that steroids have a non-trivial negative health outcome for the user. Simple prisoner's dilemma - if everyone cooperates, then we have everyone healthy and one winner. If we have everyone defect, we have everyone unhealthy, but *still* only one winner. The reason people are cheating is because imperfect monitoring (or insufficiently large punishments) leaves some cheating and some cooperating - there are returns to steroids sitting on the table. Nonetheless, zero steroids would be a Pareto improvement.

I don't know Mike, would zero coffee be a Pareto Improvement. How about zero viagra?

Why stop at steroids? Why not zero weight training? Would the NFL be better if there was no weight lifting allowed and we just had naturally big guys playing the line? Clearly, we know that the average life expectancy of an NFL player is lower than that in society in general.

How about nutrition? Certainly athletes have learned a lot since Babe Ruth about how to eat right to enhance their performance on game day.

What if we went further? No performance enhancement training allowed, and no natural advantages allowed. The NBA would only allow 5'10" and 6'0" tall guys who could only jump about 5 inches.

And for that matter, no performance enhancement should be allowed in graduate school or among economists. It would be a Pareto improvement for those of us who are not so gifted as those who use coffee to enliven their thought processes.

This is what I am asking. We don't worry about Angelina's enhancements, or those of other performers, but we do worry about the enhancements of athletes through steroids. But in fact, athletic enhancements merely help an athlete train harder and enable them to withstand injury and heal quicker, they do not alter their hand-eye coordination, or their fast-twitch muscles. It is not like we are talking about "bionic enhancements" on the athletic field (e.g., a robot arm for your favorite pitcher).

I am not taking a position in favor or against steroid use. I do think the strongest argument against is not the fairness in sports issue (because I think EVERYONE is looking for an edge in sports at the highest levels) nor do I believe in the Nanny State trying to protect athletes, but because of the spill over in the non-elite sports world. If the pros do it, college kids will do it, and if the college kids do it, then the HS kids will do it, and so on and so on. If we didn't have the professionalization of youth sports that we do in America and there was some understanding of prioritization, I would be less troubled. Pro athletes destroy their bodies for our entertainment, they should be able to use legally any means available to help their bodies recover. We don't complain when knee injuries that would have ruined a career 20 years ago are now routinely done and recovered from. But we don't want to see 12 year olds getting Tommy John surgery on their elbows because they started throwing curve balls when they were 7 in Little League.

What is the best economic argument for (a) why we ban these drugs, and (b) why the reaction is such when we find out one of our "heroes" used these drugs?

In this particular case, at least the one ESPN report I listened to said they couldn't give Jones's medals to the second place person in the Olympics because she was under suspicion as well as was the third place finisher.

BTW, Micky Mantle played hurt throughout his career, do you think he was given anything to try to help out with pain, or try to help out with recovery?

I am truly curious about a rational choice explanation of why we care about steroid use among elite athletes. Performance enhancement is what they devote their lives to. What am I missing? It is obvious to so many, but not to me.

The simple answer is that Marion Jones cheated. That's enough.

Why should steroids be banned from sport? (I did not criminialized, please note.) Less simple to answer, but I believe the idea is that hard work, courage, guts, character, perserverance are the things that really matter in sport -- it's about human character. Sure, at the highest levels genetic endowment is crucial, but even on that lofty plane, it should be a battle of courage... not clever designer drugs. The only Olympian I've known well told me he refused to let them do muscle biopsies on him -- he didn't want to be told it was "just his genes;" he said it would sabotage his mental focus and discipline.

So why is coffee OK (caffeine helps in a marathon, and too much is officially banned, BTW) and not steroids? It's a matter of degree. There's no distinct dividing line, it's just a "reasonable man" standard.

I'm surprised that Austrians, who correctly attacke neoclassicals for treating human actors like mechanical automatons, would miss this and seem to think anything that helps Marion run faster is OK, that values, ideas, etc. associated with sport are irrelevant.

Finally, I think steroids have nasty LR side effects. It would be tragic if anyone hoping to compete had to reconcile themselves to using steroids because everyone already was. (Of course Pitt is probably right, and we're already in that sad state of affairs.)

I really admire the way you approach to tackle this matter which became a global issue . I will be observing your future works and submitting my own views and results of my personal researches.

Blah, blah, blah, we moved on and the kids started asking different questions. 3 minutes later, a girl named Molly asked, "I've always heard that we were made in God's image, but sometimes I wonder if that means exactly in God's image. Like, we only have 2 arms, but what if God has 4?" Quick as lightning, a guy across the room yells, "Molly, duh- God transcends arms!".

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