Sports and Capitalism

So I’m fat.

Like, fat fat, not fat fat fat.

Since High School, I’ve put on about a hundred pounds.

This is tough for me, because I was always athletic growing up (I played basketball in high school and ran track in college…sigh…now I can’t even run…).

Anyway, so I’ve recently recommitted myself to going to the gym, which has made me think about what a great example of capitalism sports is, and how underutilized this metaphor is for teaching youngsters what capitalism is all about.

For those who are new to my blog, my working definition of capitalism is “the voluntary transformation of raw materials into finished products,” which I think is at least as good as any other definition out there.

So in sports, everyone kind of starts out as these useless lumps of raw material, which, in and of themselves, are not particularly helpful in the given situation.

Being tall is helpful in basketball, but there are tons of examples of tall people who turned out to be terrible at the sport, because a raw material is never as useful as a finished good.

Instead, the raw material of our mortal coil must be transformed, often through hard work, dedication, and study, into something more suitable for the task at hand.

Nobody is born being good at shooting free throws.

Sure, there are some people whose genetics lend themselves to being easier to transform into athletes than others, but there are also some fruits that lend themselves better for making pies than others.  Just as a good chef can make something edible out of something disgusting like a filthy, gross fig, any human can build up his body into good physical condition.

So, there’s the raw material aspect being changed into a finished product.  This is easy for kids to understand.  They can see that the kids who spend the most time playing basketball become the kids who are the most talented at basketball.  They can see that the kids who put in the most work in gym class end up getting the most out of it.

They’re not dumb, you know, they’re just young.  They can put 2 and 2 together.

The next good aspect of capitalism represented in sports is creative destruction.  That is to say, capitalism involves an awful lot of failures before a spectacular success can be achieved (the ballpoint pen is a good example of how many failures a simple idea has to go through before someone gets it right).

Businesses have to open and close.  Ideas have to be created, tested, and either accepted or rejected before the cycle starts again.  This dynamism represents a kind of communal machine learning wherein better ideas replace less efficient ones.

The same is true in sports.  Practice is the heart of any athletic endeavor, and practice is essentially just an organized regimen of failures.  Every time a hitter misses the ball, every time the pitcher misses his spot, every time a shortstop misses the throw is one more failure that teaches and grows a better player.

You don’t have to be a Rich Dad / Poor Dad disciple (or Katy Perry fan) to know that one of the reasons most people never flourish is that they are afraid to fail, and so they never try to succeed.  Sports does a great job showing kids that failure isn’t the end of the story.  There can always be another shot, another pitch, another race.

Finally, sports does a great job showing kids how important cooperation and trust are, which are similarly important foundations for capitalism.

The most fundamental necessity to capitalism is fair laws and the fair application of those laws.  You can read Deirdre McCloskey, or you can just watch youth sports and see how kids react to bad reffing.  They know what’s up.  The rules are supposed to be applied equally to everyone.

But that’s only one side of trust. The other is with your teammates.  Teammates don’t have to be friends or like each other, but they do have to trust that everyone on their team is going to uphold their share of the communal load.

Capitalism requires that lots of people get together to share their raw materials with each other.  Lemonade requires someone with lemons, someone with sugar, someone with water, and someone with time.  More often than not, it’s not all going to be one person with all those things, it’s going to be a few people pooling their resources together to build a finished product (or one person outsourcing his needs to others, which is the same thing).

Trusting your supply chain is the same thing as a quarterback trusting his center.

Perhaps the most important things kids can learn from sports is the glorious order that can be generated out of chaos.  Sure, it’s nice when a play is perfectly executed, but it’s the broken plays that require fast thinking, remarkable skill, or maybe even a little luck that stick in athletes’ minds.

When you’re holding a basketball, there are literally infinite vectors, speeds, and rotation that you can shoot a basketball.  Yet, somehow, even in this field of infinite possibilities, the human spirit manages more often than not to generate the order necessary to complete a pass, make a shot, set a pick, or toss up an alley oop.

In a lot of ways sports is beautiful not because it’s scripted, but because anything can happen on any given Sunday.

Is it any different in capitalism?












The Heart of Capitalism

I was Killing Orcs the other day (*”Killing Orcs” is the euphemism my wife uses for when I am playing MMORPGs).  One of the other players posted a question in the general chat channel asking a favor.  I did the requested favor.  I felt good because I had used my talents, time, and resources to produce something of value for someone else.  This led to a larger discussion in the chat channel on Communism and Capitalism, and I wanted to get a few thoughts out.

Economic systems seek to turn raw materials into finished products to make life easier.  All economic systems do this (except Environmentalism, which, in a sense, is an anti-economic system).  If Bob has lemons, Susan has sugar, Paul has water, and Brittany has free time, then individually they don’t have much you’d want (lemons are too tart by themselves, sugar is too sweet, water is filthy and disgusting, and free time isn’t so impressive).

Together though, they have the ingredients for delicious lemonade, fit for the finest of my skull mugs as I sit atop my throne of bones surveying my vast holdings.

Finished goods don’t have to be lemonade.  Finished goods can be concrete (“lemonade”, “a gun”) or abstract (“security”, “knowledge”).  A glass tube, some chemicals, and a Bunsen burner are the raw materials that create understanding of explody things, just like two wheats and three ores will build a city in Settlers of Catan.

Both Capitalism and Communism can get finished products from raw goods.  In fact, I would venture that if you gave these four things to four pre-indoctrinated children in either political system, they would come up with lemonade, because cooperation is a natural part of the human spirit.

In fact, I think most capitalists underestimate what can be accomplished in a communist state.  Neighbors help each other, children play games, and some raw goods become finished products spontaneously, without any government intervention or force.


The rest of the time shows the difference between the two systems, when there are differences of opinions about how to use the raw materials we have access to.  Consider the lemonade example.  Arianna had the free time to mix the lemonade, but lets say she has another group of friends, interested in producing ice cream, who need some extra hands.  Arianna wants to spend her resource (time) making ice cream instead of making lemonade.

In Capitalism, each person owns his own capital.  In Arianna’s case, her capital is her time, and in a capitalist system, she is free to choose to go make ice cream instead of lemonade.  Which is to say, she is free to expend her capital as she wishes.  Tough nuts for the Lemonaders, who now face a labor shortage, but a boon for the Ice Creamers.  Unless she has broken a contract, the state need not interfere through force (i.e. the government).

But in Communism, Arianna does not own her capital (her free time)–the state does (the “res publica” in Ciceronian terms).  And if the state (which, in reality, is just Arianna’s fellow citizens) wants her to be making lemonade instead of ice cream, it can use force (i.e. the government) to get her to do what it wants her to do.  She has no right to refuse if her interests do not align with that of her state.

And so on.  If Arianna had chosen to expend her capital in charity (working for free at a pet shelter), she would be free to do that in a Capitalism system, but not a Communist one (unless the state was prioritizing shih-tzu awareness month).

Thus, at heart, the essence of Capitalism is freedom, and the essence of Communism is servitude.

The common misconception is that Capitalism can be reduced to profit-seeking in a monetary sense, when it would be better to see Capitalism explained as happiness seeking.  However, not happy in the sense of joy (Latin: “laetus”), but rather happy in the sense of luck or destiny (Latin: “felix”).

This is a crucial point, lost because of changes in the English language which have eroded this second meaning of happiness (which is the one Jefferson used in “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” line from the Declaration of Independence).  Capitalism allows each man to be the author of his own fortune (be this as a blacksmith, artist, philosopher, or ploughman) as he sees fit, rather than allow the state to decide his fortune for him.

This does not mean, however, that the idea of freedom isn’t terrifying to some.  Many people are petrified by the idea of walking the economic tightrope without a net.  The idea of investing time or resources wisely but individually is far worse than an alternative wherein they sacrifice their unwelcome freedom for greater security.  History is littered with examples of people who willingly enslaved themselves to stave off poverty, hunger, or death.  Freedom is often a less cherished idea than some would have you believe.  Some, free, will always yearn for the soft embrace of the slave’s collar instead of the harsh winds of choice.