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Baseball Justice

Posted By Russ Roberts On October 17, 2005 @ 3:15 pm In Sports | Comments Disabled

The umpires have missed numerous calls in this season’s playoffs again prompting calls for instant replay in baseball, electronic umpiring and so on.  The outrage that fans feel over injustice in sports is part of a larger trend in society that demands precision when precision is impossible. 

I see it as a teacher when students complain about grades.  I see it in the recount process in elections.  I see it in college football when the "wrong" team is named the national champion.

This demand for precision has a good and a bad side.  The good side is that it is part of a quest for justice.  The right team should win.  The candidate with the most votes should be elected.  The exam score should reflect your performance.  There is something distasteful when a team wins that doesn’t deserve it.

The bad side is that justice is costly and the demand for justice has unintended consequences.  I’m not talking about preserving tradition for tradition’s sake.  Perfect justice means an infinite number of cameras with an infinite number of umpires conferring for an infinite amount of time to get it right.  And you would have to examine every play not just dramatic ones.  That is not an ideal, it’s a curse.  It is the same force that partly explains our litigiousness and regulatory zeal.  Every inequality must be redressed.  Taken to an extreme, such a worldview inevitably puts more power in the hands of the arbiters (lawyers and politicians and umpires) at the expense of the other participants, including the fans.  It also changes the incentives.  It encourages participants to put in effort at pleasing or avoiding the arbiters in ways that are unhealthy.

This demand for justice is a function of our wealth.  As we get wealthier and as the stakes get higher in sports and in politics, people are less and less likely to shrug and say that’s life and to assume that any one injustice against you will be balanced by others in your favor.

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