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Sowell on MLB

Thomas Sowell offers some strong views in light of the Mitchell report on Real Clear Politics -- Steroid in Baseball: Say It Ain't So. Here are a few excerpts:

On steroid (and related) use:

Maybe we are too sophisticated today to react that way to the news that many major league star players have been taking steroids or other performance-enhancing drugs. But maybe we have gotten too sophisticated for our own good.

Steroids are dangerous and sometimes fatal. Yet, if some players use them, others will feel the pressure to use them as well, in order to compete. Most important of all, many young people will imitate their sports heroes -- and pay the price. Those young people are far more important than asterisks.

On punishment/deterrence:

There is still some lingering hope of sanity in the baseball writers' refusal to vote Mark McGwire into the Baseball Hall of Fame, despite his tremendous career achievements. Keeping known rule-breakers out of Cooperstown would be a lot more effective deterrent than putting asterisks alongside their records, to be disregarded by those who are "non-judgmental."

Readers familiar with Sowell know that he is no fan of big government or infringement on personal choice. He has endured a great deal of acrimony for his views on such matters --likely much more than most readers of this blog. Yet, he views MLB steroid users as reprehensible for their illegality, lack of ethics, and spillovers effects within and beyond baseball.

In contrast, many among the network of sports economists hold the critics of steroid use in disregard. My views fall close to Sowell's way of thinking, yet I'm aware that this puts me at odds with many colleagues whose views I respect. I thought that I would address (very briefly) what seem to me to be the main objections to the anti-steroid line.

Drugs should be decriminalized (it is a matter of personal choice, enforcement is ineffectual, ...), so MLB drug users should not be vilified or punished.
This seems to be the root of much of the defense of sports drug users. Yes, U.S. drug policy is a matter worthy of serious discussion. Yet, even agreeing to decriminalization does not imply that current laws should not be enforced. How do we triage laws that should be enforced and those that shouldn't? Who decides? I'm a proponent of free trade but think that we should enforce standing restrictions (as Adam Smith did).

MLB had no explicit rules against these substances, so MLB or Hall of Fame voters should take no action.
Some rules are explicit, some implicit. These players not only knew that they were breaking federal law, but they broke the law with the specific intent of gaining advantage over their peers.

Fans don't care about drug use.
I'm a fan. I care. Yes, when I thought that McGwire and Sosa achieved their feats straight up, I cheered. However, when realized the likely role that drugs played in their accomplishments, it sickened me to see them (and others like them) standing in the same company as Mays, Aaron, Gibson, Koufax, and other heroes of the past. I don't think that I'm alone in these views. Yes, I tire of the media's oversaturation of this and other non-playing topics, but I'm also interested in identifying cheaters and getting substances away from the game (as much as possible).

Substances don't enhance performance.
While there is not a lot of lab work on this subject and observational studies (casual and rigorous) are subject to omitted variable and causality issues, the idea that HGH or steroids don't enhance performance seems a reach, at best. Not only did run-of-the mill players start hitting 50 homers, but players from the mid 1990s somehow discovered the fountain of youth. Plus, it has predictive content -- see my not-so-veiled reference to Roger Clemens in a 2005 post.

Drug use by players is a personal choice with no external consequences.
Even if we avoid the broader, societal consequences regarding imitation by youth that Sowell mentions, there is a moral hazard problem that the internal politics of the MLB and MLBPA have failed to address very well. The 2005 post addresses this issue.

My comments will, no doubt, generate some strong opposing views. Let me say that I realize that issues of fairness, aggregated beyond the individual level, get messy very fast. That's true whether the discussion relates to laws or simply organizational rules. MLB drug use and what to do about it retrospectively is no exception. I don't pretend to have all the answers, but I do think that the views of someone like Thomas Sowell gives weight to the idea that this is not just a media-driven problem.