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The Wacky World of Civic Baseball

March 20, 2008

Tags The EntrepreneurFree Markets

It's civic baseball season again, that time of the year when we are reminded that everything we believe about how society works is wrong, at least in this area if not in all areas.

Parents strapped for cash — how long-suffering is the middle class — throw down hundreds of dollars for equipment and uniforms and batting gloves and shoes and lessons, for the little boys and girls must not do without.

Parents who have no time for anything — no they can't come to your dinner party, go to the symphony, or take a night off to hear a lecture — permit night after night after night to be devoured in ball practices and games. The precise dates are never announced in advance. Parents are expected to leave open every late afternoon and weekend in March, April, and May. The whole of spring belongs to baseball. No questions asked. They do this.

And people who can't possibly imagine volunteering their time for any good cause can somehow dedicate hundreds and hundreds of hours, all so that kids can hit a ball with a stick and run around bases better and faster than some other guy.

The level of fanatic commitment, the intensity of concern, the level of dedication — the whole thing boggles the mind.

But how does this annual two-month frenzy unravel what we think we know about society? Let's start with the most obvious point — obvious once you think about it. The idea that cities must provide this service is a deeply entrenched part of civic life. Hardly anyone questions the need to loot taxpayers to build large sports complexes, maintain them all year, pay referees, and generally administer this vast apparatus requiring millions in funding.

Why? The reason usually given is that sport programs are a good thing, they bring the community together, they provide an outlet for kids, and socialize them into important life activities such as … playing sports. How can anyone oppose such a wonderful and essential thing?

The same could be said of many goods and services. Wristwatches, fruits and vegetables, sneakers, laptops, and Manga comics are all staples of a kid's life. No one suggests that these must therefore be provided to all people via the public sector, at least not without means testing. No, they are mostly provided through free enterprise.

Does anyone doubt that civic baseball can be provided privately? It's not the case that if the city government didn't provide it, everyone would just throw up their hands and say, well, heck, we guess we need to do something else this spring! No, private enterprise would immediately step up to the plate. Indeed, the very presence of civic leagues crowds out private provision.

In basketball, where start-up costs are much lower, many churches have become fed up with the complete lack of ethics and old-fashioned sportspersonship in civic leagues and thereby founded Upward leagues: "Winning is more than a game. Scoreboards reveal outcomes, not success. Winning comes from the inside, the intangibles. Players that play their very best are winners."

Such groups would flourish far more than they currently do if the cities would get out of the sports business. In fact, the civic leagues had to become pretty darn crass and uninhabitable (from the many parents' point of view) for there to be enough energy in place to found these alternative leagues. And these alternative leagues struggle in the face of the dominant market player of civic leagues.

In economics, there are many reasons given for why the state must provide some services. The usual rationale ranges from public-goods theory to the need for justice. But the amazing thing is that none of these rationales can be said to apply to civic sports leagues. No one says: the state should provide courts, defense, streets, and, of course, provide tee ball for 7-year olds every Spring. In fact, there is no rationale beyond the sense that, well, we've always done this and this is just what cities should do.

But won't private leagues charge money? Probably. City leagues charge money too. There is the admission fee, the inflated prices of concessions, the costs associated with bats and uniforms and helmets, not to mention the obligatory post-game snacks and periodic pizza parties. All this stuff adds up. This is not a sport for the poor and frugal.

And yet money plays a very strange role in civic sports. Very strange indeed. Number one on the strangeness list is that coaches are not paid. They leave work early in the day to get to practice early and stay late and give kids rides home. They take off Saturday for games. They show up Sunday for extra batting practice. All told, many of them spend as much as 25 hours a week doing this stuff. They are often lawyers, engineers, and professionals of all sorts, with high opportunity costs of their time. And they are not paid a dime.

Nor does the lack of payment diminish the intensity with which they undertake their jobs. They compete with each other, even fiercely so. The title "coach" is revered. When it comes time to pick among them to name the all-star coach at season's end, there is an incredible amount of politicking going on. There are fights on the baseball board. There is jockeying for position and influence. Rumors fly about inside jobs and graft. It becomes nasty beyond anything one sees in the for-profit world.

Same with parents and their kids, actually. The kids aren't paid — that would be child labor. The parents aren't paid. And yet the intensity is frightening. If some kid plays left field instead of shortstop, and the parent thinks this is a slight, the coach will hear about it. Conspiracy theories abound. And once the parents turn on a coach, he can go from revered to the devil in their eyes. Same with a losing season: the volunteer coach had better watch his back.

    

Say, aren't we usually told that it is money that motivates human action? That people do what they are paid to do and otherwise we are wrong to expect anything of them? Well, if that's the theory, it sure doesn't hold up when it comes to civic baseball. The degree of competition here — not always healthy either, and often vicious and cruel — is proof alone that the idea that money makes the world go round is wrong.

We are able to make more sense of all this insanity if we use the Austrian lens to observe that money doesn't have to be a force for human motivation. It is, rather, a tool of calculation. It permits rational allocation of resources and the discernment of profit and loss. Moreover, human action does not necessarily seek to maximize profit in an accounting sense. Any number of factors can drive humans to act this way or that. Nor does the absence of money motivation quash the existence of competition: from what I can tell, the competitive urge shows up in other ways, with dogs eating dogs.

Indeed, it strikes me that civic sports would be far less cruel and hysterical if it were run for profit. This is because a main motivator of the hysteria is precisely that everyone thinks of himself as having given a great deal to the cause and thereby expects everyone to be grateful. Of course people are never grateful, at least not grateful enough, and this fact breeds resentment that plays itself out in other ways. Put civic sports on a profit-making basis, and you would see the very peace and serenity of commercial life break out.

 


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