We are developing the social individualist meta-context for the future. From the very serious to the extremely frivolous... lets see what is on the mind of the Samizdata people.

Samizdata, derived from Samizdat /n. - a system of clandestine publication of banned literature in the USSR [Russ.,= self-publishing house]

Care in using sport as an example for other things

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.

Tweet about this on TwitterShare on FacebookShare on LinkedInShare on TumblrShare on RedditShare on Google+Share on VK

10 comments to Care in using sport as an example for other things

  • Rob

    I think your argument is flawed. Winning the TdF is not a Zero sum game for the competitors who don’t win. Many of them are highly payed athletes enjoying an enviable remuneration for doing something they love. I’m sure that Andy Murray didn’t consider the £575,000 he picked up for being beaten in this year’s Wimbledon Final by the best tennis player ever, to be “zero sum”.

  • Dave Walker

    A hearty “well done” to Mr Wiggins – and it’s great to see Britain winning top spot (top two spots, in fact) in yet another sport we came up with (lest we forget, the bicycle was invented by a Scotsman).

    I can’t help but think that Boris is being a mite premature, though; the Olympics haven’t even started yet, much less wrapped up successfully (and without incident or economy-crippling side-effects, and with profit).

    This leads me to think of other examples where comparisons have been given and honours bestowed, on the assumption of future success (Obama’s Nobel, gongs in the Queen’s Birthday Honours list for various people involved in bidding for and organising the Olympics, etc).

    Shouldn’t back-slapping be refrained from, until the job actually *has* been well done?

  • Sam Duncan

    “The Olympics, in other words, is about character. It’s about the will.”

    It’s about milking the taxpayer dry to pay a national team of professional players of sports the public aren’t remotely interested in – otherwise they’d pay them voluntarily – so you can swan around for a few weeks boasting about all the medals “we” won.

    So yes, I suppose it is about character, Boris.

  • Jonathan Pearce

    Rob, I am sure the other competitors who fail to win but who get paid a good sum are pleased to do what they do but the plain fact is that sportsmen and women want to come first. Well, the ones with ambition and self respect do, anyway.

  • frank cobain

    In other news, SA destroys England at the Oval.

  • Johnathan Pearce

    Frank Cobain, indeed.

    And South Africans know all about the zero-sum game that was the apartheid system.

  • CaptDMO

    Now that Mr. Wiggins has earned the rewards of his investment, will he be expected to bear a “nominal”
    amount of artificial weight to compete, just to keep things “fair” in the future?

    Taxes on any “rewards” he may elicit aside, how could he possibly have gotten there without “owing” something back to da gub’mint?
    Mr. Obama (et. al.) would like to know.

  • Rob

    “Rob, I am sure the other competitors who fail to win but who get paid a good sum are pleased to do what they do but the plain fact is that sportsmen and women want to come first. Well, the ones with ambition and self respect do, anyway.”

    Posted by Jonathan Pearce at July 23, 2012 10:07 PM

    Jonathan, I think your being unfair, there are many sportsmen paying whose ambition extends to being the best they can be, but realistic enough to realise that they will never be able to beat the best in their chosen field. The satisfaction they get from beating thier personal bes, or beating a higher ranked player provide the motivation they need to carry on and when successful, great satisfaction and a large measure of self respect.

  • Johnathan Pearce

    Rob, still not agreeing with you here:

    “The satisfaction they get from beating thier personal bes, or beating a higher ranked player provide the motivation they need to carry on and when successful, great satisfaction and a large measure of self respect.”

    Well iindeed, up to a point that is true. I know that there are runners, for example, who set personal bests and use the motivation of being in a race to improve their times. Golfers can do this with their scoring, and so on. But in some sports, such as boxing (yes, it is a sport), or football, or rugby, or cricket, etc, talk of “personal bests” does not really work if your team has been defeated, even if your side has played better than ever before, or if you got to throw some good punches.

    There is no getting away from it. Sports are played with the objective of winning, which is a zero-sum thing, regardless of what other benefits and compensations one gets along the way (and I don’t deny any of them). And capitalism is not quite the same as that. Hence my point.

  • Alisa

    boxing (yes, it is a sport)

    There’s any doubt about that?