Thursday, September 22, 2005

Would Edmund Burke Bat Alex Rodriguez Leadoff?

To a knowledgeable baseball fan for any manager to do that seems preposterous. But in recent years people have suggested that, mathematically, to maximize run production the leadoff hitter should be the team’s best hitter, primarily because he will get more at-bats. A piece excerpted here makes a similar suggestion that the optimal lineup (in order to maximize run production) is to put players in the lineup in descending order of on-base percentage (OBP). So as of today the Yankees would put Jason Giambi in the leadoff spot and have Alex Rodriguez bat second. Both of these players are known mostly for their ability to hit home runs and doubles. (If you are not a baseball fan, OBP refers to the percentage of times a player comes to the plate that he ends up on-base via a hit or a walk.) There is in fact a baseball computer game called Out of the Park Baseball where the programming is such that often a power hitter is inserted automatically into the leadoff slot.

But that is not the way baseball managers fill out their lineup cards. They put speedy guys who walk a lot and don’t strikeout at the top of the order. If a player gets on a lot but also hits a lot of home runs, he will bat third, fourth or fifth, the theory being that he will be more productive that way because it’s more likely that the top two guys in the lineup will be on base when he comes up. If the power guy bats first, a lot of those big hits come with the bases empty. Managers will tell you that that is the way it has always been done, and therefore that’s the only way that makes sense.

Sports is often a window into economics, and society more broadly, and this controversy between the number-crunchers – people who claim to have discovered a new way to do things that is superior to the traditional way – and the people with life-long experience in the game is surprisingly instructive. Managers who stick with the established way of filling out their lineup card are, in essence, bowing to the implicit wisdom of tradition. And it turns out that this is a well-developed theme that has huge implications for the ability of reason powered by the state to cultivate desirable social change.

In a fascinating article for people interested in the history of ideas, Linda Raeder has attempted to philosophically unite Edmund Burke, the conservative’s conservative, and the 20th-century libertarian (as he would now be called) Friedrich Hayek. Burke was Irish by birth but a pillar of the British establishment. He is best known for his scornful criticism of the French Revolution, in which in a span of just a few years the long-established French order was overthrown and replaced by the scions of the French Enlightenment, people who believed that human reasoning was the only proper guide to the conduct of state affairs and to the proper construction of the social order. Perhaps the low ebb of this movement was when Notre Dame Cathedral was taken over, heavily vandalized and turned briefly into a shrine to the cult of Reason. To Burke, human tradition had wisdom locked within it, wisdom that was indiscernible to the person assessing the tradition decades or centuries later, but was no less true because of the ignorance. We might privilege marriage among other types of family structures, for example, because it has long been that way in most places. To overturn tradition because we are smarter now than they were then and can use reason to plot a better future, is to throw away that implicit reason. It is therefore to cultivate disaster.

When the best-laid plans imposed on an impossibly complex society fail to work out as planned, the planner blames the rebellious disobedience, abject incompetence or conspiratorial subversion of his subjects, rather than the farcical difficulty of trying to figure in detail out how millions of humans will react to his plan. The disobedient then must be made to obey the plan, which is beyond criticism. The plan leads to chaos, and the chaos then leads naturally enough to the Terror and the guillotine. He didn’t live to see it, but the many tens of millions killed by twentieth-century Communism, another form of governance built on historical inevitability flawlessly deduced by those in power, would have struck him as unsurprising.

Hayek believed in upholding tradition for the same reasons Burke did. But Hayek advanced the argument by conceding the possibility of progress, of new ways of organizing society replacing older ways. But progress happened not because of some plan reasoned out and imposed from above, but from social experimentation conducted from below. When new social arrangements were tried, and worked to create results that people valued, they would come to triumph over old without any push from above. Thus we get the replacement of village-dominated societies with urbanized ones, the rise and (to the extent they are not protected by the government) fall of labor unions, the development (and, perhaps, the ultimate demise) of the multinational corporation, the decline of the extended family, and countless other examples. In the Hayek view people should be free to experiment, but the government should favor none.

The savvy baseball manager refuses to bat his 40-home run guy leadoff because he knows that’s not what you’re supposed to do, no matter what the computer guys tell him. More generally the conservative believes, for the same reason, that you don’t use the state to overthrow established traditions. You don’t, for example, subsidize alternatives to the traditional nuclear family. That it is so prevalent and so longstanding suggests that there is great social value to it, and to cultivate its erosion is madness. If it fades away on its own fair enough, but to erode it from above is to risk a lot. To the conservative mind, those who are confident that such legislative engineering yields “progress” are not sufficiently humble about their own limitations in a world where a lot of important information is contained deep within society, unobservable to its members but no less important for its invisibility. Contrary to what many believe, what animates conservatism is not social Darwinism, but humility about human reason, and cognizance of the capacity of leaders to do terrible things when their grand plans don’t work out the way they thought they would.


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