Universal Translator

Sunday, September 11, 2011

A Football Analogy

Over at ThinkProgress, Scott Keyes has an article up entitled "Top Seven Progressive Policies that Strengthen the National Football League." Among the policies singled out by Keyes are:
(i) TV and radio revenue sharing contracts that allow small market teams like the Packers and the Vikings to remain competitive with big market teams like the Cowboys and the Giants;

(ii) The team salary cap, which prevents deep pocket teams from simply purchasing all the best players in the league; and

(iii) The progressive draft system, under which the team with the worst record has first pick in the next year's draft, the team with the second worst record gets the next pick, etc.
What struck me when I read this short article is that these rules were put in place 50 years ago after legendary NFL Commissioner Pete Rozell persuaded the team owners themselves to adopt them.

The League's ultimate goal in enacting these rules, of course, was to maintain football's popularity with the fans, and the strategy hit upon for doing so was to make sure all the teams could remain competitive over the long run. The rules agreed to by the team owners -- including the richest and most powerful owners at the time -- were simply the specific way this strategy was deployed. In the absence of these rules, a small number of teams could quickly dominate the league to the detriment of all the other players. This would either (i) make football season incredibly boring or, more likely, (ii) kill off the other teams and thus doom the NFL itself.

These NFL rules provide a useful analogy for understanding the way in which our government's constitutional mandate to promote "the General Welfare" can only be fulfilled by placing some restrictions on the free market system with which we are so enthralled. There is a difference between the overall system and the individual actors in that system, and sometimes in order to promote the general system one has to restrict the profiteering of the individual actors.

From a certain perspective, one could say that the team salary cap, the draft system, and the revenue sharing contracts in the NFL all "punish" richer, more successful teams by providing assistance to the poorer, less successful teams. But another, more accurate way of looking at the situation is to focus on the rules' effect on the league and not their effect on the separate teams. Viewed through this lens, the necessity for these rules is apparent: they are what maintain a healthy, vibrant system under which everybody prospers.

The same thing applies to the intersection of the government and our economy. The government's charge to promote "the General Welfare" means that its focus has to be on the economic system -- not the economic actors. To that end, we enacted redistributive taxes like the estate tax and the progressive income tax in an effort to prevent wealth from becoming concentrated in the hands of a few rich families. We enacted myriad government regulations to prevent companies selling us goods and services from ripping us off or poisoning us. We enacted collective bargaining rights so the negotiating imbalance between a large employer and an individual worker could be redressed. And on and on and on.

Conservatives and - especially - Libertarians point to all these instances in which the government has acted to prevent the already rich and successful from simply dominating the economy to the detriment of everybody else and complain that the rich and successful are being "punished." But that isn't it at all. These policies were adopted for the same reason the NFL adopted its own rules: because in order to maintain a healthy system, some minimal amount of parity between all parties needs to be maintained. Complaints by Conservatives and Libertarians about these rules miss the fact that these rules are the price that is paid for not having the system collapse. And not having the system collapse, ultimately, benefits us all.

Even the people complaining about the rules.

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