It is inevitable. The day after Bradley Wiggins (about whom Patrick Crozier wrote here) rode to victory in the Tour de France, becoming the first British winner of this famously brutal event, London’s mayor, Boris Johnson, took hold of this feat, and the upcoming Olympics, to make some points about what might appear to be a very different issue: the UK economy:
“As you listen, you realise that these performances were the result not just of physical genius, but also of colossal intellectual and emotional effort — years of self-discipline. The Olympics, in other words, is about character. It’s about the will. Of course, as Baron de Coubertin was at pains to point out, it is not all about winning. But if you want to win, then you need to work. That is the basic message of the Olympics.”
There is a problem here. Sport – so long as it does not involve cheating the rules (key qualification) is a strict meritocracy, and effort and reward hopefully are closely aligned, although that doesn’t allow for the blessings of inborn physical and mental capabilities, nor that of simple luck. There is, in my view, a danger in supposing that the qualities that are good in sport can be easily carried across into other fields. One thing that Boris J. probably understands better than some of his fellow Conservatives is that with sport, it is, at least as far as competitors are concerned, zero sum. If Bradley Wiggins wins the Tour, that means someone else doesn’t, and so on. It is not of course zero sum for the spectators and fans who get a vicarious sense of enjoyment from watching it all. But in a free economy, there is a positive-sum game: everyone “wins” as the economic pie expands as more efficient and effective ways of delivering goods and services are arrived at. And to do that, requires, not some sort of endless preaching about the need for hard work and conquest of pain, but about allowing free men and women to interact how they want, subject to as few impediments as possible from the State.
The late Robert Nozick once criticized the notion that inheritance of wealth is unfair by pointing to how people who say this often liken their ideal society to a sort of athletics race, where there is a track of fixed length, a fixed starting point and end, and a set quantity of runners seeking to acquire a pre-determined prize. A free, open society is very different. It is, as he said in Anarchy, State and Utopia, about people exchanging different things with one another without worrying about any set starting point or finishing line.
Like Boris Johnson, I agree we can and should be inspired by the courage and determination of people such as Bradley Wiggins and other athletes. Let’s not, however, confuse a sadistic 3-week peloton through the French countryside with what needs to happen to revive an over-regulated and over-taxed economy.
In the meantime, well done to Wiggins. Fantastic achievement, and he appears to be a likeable bloke as well. I hope he can cope with some of the fame and hangers-on who will be attracted to his presumed new wealth.