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The NFL: An Analogy for Government’s Proper Role in the Marketplace?

In defense of government regulation of the economy, writer Stephen Hiltner writes:

Sports, in general, provides a fine analogy for what government’s role should ideally be. The athletes and their teams, motivated to beat the competition, bring to their game the same energy and creativity that entrepreneurs and businesses bring to the marketplace. But though the players and coaches may dispute a call now and then, they don’t make the mistake of perceiving regulation as the enemy. Rather, a good game requires clear rules and regulations that are fairly applied.

Referring to what he terms “the anti-government movement,” Hiltner continues:

Ideologies that equate regulation with tyranny, common in political discourse, sound bizarre when applied to the realm of sports. You don’t hear athletes quoting Ayn Rand and calling for the elimination of referees and boundaries in the name of freedom.

Hiltner is attacking a strawman. The issue is not rules vs. no rules. All human associations need rules of some kind or other. The issue is who creates them and how they are implemented. There is a clear moral distinction between a private institution voluntarily instituting its own internal rules of conduct, and a government stepping outside of its only legitimate role as a the protector of individual rights and coercively regulating the behavior of private citizens.

Hiltner’s specific example, the National Football League, is a private association of individuals bound together by voluntary contractual arrangements among all participants—players, coaches, referees, fans, union, team owners. The NFL cannot force its rules or “regulations” on anyone who doesn’t voluntarily join the organization and agree to abide by its rules.

The government, in contrast, is an institution with a legal monopoly on the use of physical force. When unconstrained by rights-based constitutional limitations, it can and does forcibly impose regulations on individuals, businesses, and industries. Government regulations are illegitimate laws; thus they can never be “fairly applied.” The very fact that they are forced on unwilling people and their associations—a situation that does not apply to the NFL—makes them decisively unfair.

The logical lesson to draw from Hiltner’s sports analogy regarding government’s role is the precise opposite of the lesson he purports to draw. By all means, uphold the NFL as the analogy for the entire marketplace; not because every one of its rules is necessarily good, but because everyone involved is free to choose his associations, free to participate or not, free to act on his own best judgment.

Like the NFL, every individual and business should be free to adopt his or its own rules, standards, or procedures in an environment of legal protection of individual rights (including property rights), an environment in which everyone—whether management, employees, customers, suppliers, investors, or anyone else—is free to contract with others by mutual consent to mutual advantage, without government interference. The government’s only proper role in such an environment is to step in when rights are violated, and even then only to remedy the situation and step back out.

Rational opponents of government regulation do not oppose rules as such. We believe that, like the NFL, those rules should be drawn in the private sector through voluntary, contractual arrangements. Nor are we “anti-government.” We believe that government has a vital role to play in preserving a free society—namely, to establish objective laws that protect individual rights by barring physical force and fraud from social relationships. In short, our position is not anti-government, but anti-tyranny.

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Creative Commons Image: Mr. Usaji

Posted in: Antitrust, Regulations, Sports

Comments are welcome so long as they are civil.
  • tjrb

    And the irony is the Federal Government has regulated the NFL such that they cannot play games on Saturday’s etc.

  • Michael A LaFerrara

    The government does not actually forbid Saturday games, or directly regulate their game schedule. Partly for fear of antitrust lawsuits, the NFL chooses not run Saturday games until December. But that is another issue.

  • Michael Philip

    Michael, I think that it is important to point out that not all government regulations are necessarily illegitimate or improper. Some are and some are not and the same thing for laws as well.

  • David Blankenau

    Clearly, you need to read Michael’s post from November 26 (“Where Does Valid Law End and Regulation Begin?”),
    where he defines the difference between a regulation and a law. Also, read Harry Binswanger’s article “What is Objective Law?” for further elaboration (Michael provides the link). You will see that all regulations BY DEFINITION violate rights (and are thereby improper), whereas laws CAN be proper and necessary (if objectively derived and applied).

    I think the point of THIS post is contained in the sentence: “There is a clear moral distinction between a private institution voluntarily instituting its own internal rules of conduct, and a
    government stepping outside of its only legitimate role as a the protector of individual rights and coercively regulating the behavior of private citizens”. It is a crucial distinction which many people fail to make.

  • Michael Philip

    Not all regulations necessarily violate rights. For instance there is a body of regulations related to the process for filing a patent which establish the procedures for executing relevant statutes. There is a also a body of regulations related to executing multiple statutes covering the administration of government contracting and then some regulations protect an individual’s due process rights by establishing procedures to challenge executive decisions.

  • Michael A LaFerrara

    “All laws (meaning statutes) are aimed at controlling behavior before rights are violated, in order to prevent rights violations.”

    Not valid laws, Michael. There can be no such thing in proper law as violating rights (“controlling behavior”) in order to prevent rights violations. See also my ”Don’t Regulate the Innocent, Punish the Guilty”:

    Procedural requirements related to filing for a patent, to use your example, is not a “government regulation” as the term is generally meant, and as I mean it.

  • Michael Philip

    My point is that all law, be it statutory or regulatory, describes forbidden conduct and consequences for engaging in that conduct. That is, as Ayn Rand says in “Objective Law”, what is required of an objective law. The relation between action and consequence exists whether or not the law is statutory or regulatory. To claim that there is a difference in controlling function between statutory and regulatory law thus flies in the face of reality.

  • David Blankenau

    “Regulations have no affect on you, before you take the action that is a violation.”
    Actually, regulations PREVENT you from taking actions and making decisions which are rightly yours to make. That is a crucial DEFINITIONAL difference from laws, not merely someone’s opinion.
    (BTW, it’s “effect”, not “affect” in this case. Just sayin’. ;^) )

  • Michael Philip

    not all actions and decisions that you take are legitimate however. Examples of regulations designed to prevent violations of rights are 32 CFR 219 (protects the rights of experimental subjects, requires informed consent), 32 CFR 277 (fraud remedies). These actions are violations of individual rights which the regulations rightfully prevent