Sunday, August 8, 2010

The Softball Test

Here’s a little test to clarify your political thinking. Where you stand on this trivial question is likely to reflect the assumptions that shape your views on politics and social policy.

I play in a long-running pickup softball game every week. Every Saturday afternoon, anything from one to two dozen guys show up at the park, toss and swat the ball around a little to warm up, and then choose sides for a couple of games of easy-going slow-pitch softball. Everyone who shows up plays; nobody is turned away.

Sometimes we come up a little short on players and can only muster two teams of six or seven each. Then we either close off a field or have the batting team supply the catcher or first baseman; there’s always a way to get a game going. But when we have a good turnout we have the opposite problem: each team might have more players than can fit on the field at one time when we’re on defense. So we apply the following rule: if you make an out in your time at bat, you might have to catch (pretty much a do-nothing position in slow-pitch) or sit out the next inning on defense. If there’s only one extra player, the third out catches; if there are two, second out catches and third out sits, and so on.

We’ve been doing it this way for years, without complaints. It puts a lot of pressure on you if you come to bat with two outs, believe me. Nobody wants to sit out the next inning. But it’s a simple and effective rule, and nobody’s ever questioned its fairness.

Until recently. Then one day when we had a lot of players and consequently three guys sitting out every inning on defense, somebody came up with the notion that it would be fairer to sit out in rotation, that is, keep track of who sat out last inning and have three different guys sit out next time. People shrugged and said sure, and we tried it.

Well, of course then somebody had to find a piece of paper and a pencil and write down the lineup and consult the list every time we went out to the field to figure out who had to sit that inning. There was a certain amount of confusion and a little grumbling. Our age-old rule was simpler, if harsher when you’re having a bad day with the bat. (There have been days when I barely had to pick up a glove.)

We haven’t tried the rotation system again. Without any explicit discussion, after that one experiment we just went back to doing it the time-tested way. Is it fair? Most of us seem to think so. It’s a meritocracy. You hit, you earn the chance to go out to the field. You fail, you sit. And it’s a lot simpler: there’s no paperwork involved.

Extend this to society at large. There are two competing notions of fairness in political thought: some people think fairness is insuring that everyone plays by the same rules and letting the chips fall where they may, and some people think fairness is insuring the same outcome for everybody. The debate over the “disparate impact” of policies on different groups is a long-running one.

Life is a lot more complicated than a softball game, of course, but our little experiment illuminates two different attitudes. People who favor equal outcomes mistrust meritocracy and support the establishment of bureaucracies to make sure everything comes out the same for everyone. Other people think that if everyone is playing by the same rules, and cheaters are punished, there’s no reason to see unequal outcomes as injustice.

Where do you stand? Do you go with the simple time-tested rule, and sit out the inning without complaint when your screaming liner goes right into the shortstop’s glove? Or do you insist that that’s not fair and that you sat out the last inning, and it’s your turn to go to the field?

And does this carry over to your political stance? For me it does; I favor the simple, effective rule even when it keeps me nailed to the bench, and in politics I favor meritocratic arrangements and mistrust complicated bureaucratic fixes. A book I recommend to everyone is Richard Epstein’s Simple Rules for a Complex World. In it Epstein discusses how six simple, time-tested legal principles (autonomy, first possession, voluntary exchange, protection from aggression, limited privilege in cases of need and taking with compensation for public benefit) do a better job of governing society than a lot of complicated ad hoc legislation administered by clumsy bureaucracies.

But you don’t have to read Epstein’s book: just ask yourself which approach keeps the softball game moving smoothly, as well as providing the best incentives for concentrating during your at-bats. And see if that doesn’t tell you something about the way we are governed.

Sam Reaves