August 8, 2016
How The Free Market Betrays Baseball Players
I have to confess, I’ve become bad at responding to comments. Part of this is laziness, but another large part is due to the classic internet truism that one should never read the comments, and I have found that not focusing on the mean things people say about me does help me keep the ol’ self esteem up and running. That said, I’ve found that the commentary at Baseball Prospectus, almost on a whole, has been thoughtful and civil: not a crying Jordan or “delete your account” as far as the eye can see, regardless of how much I might deserve it. So I thought, why not show the same kindness back and try to answer a comment, however best I can.
So, to that end. Last week, before the insanity of the trade deadline and even before the Colin Rea-Luis Castillo swap could prove my point for me, I wrote about the exchangeability of minor-leaguers, particularly the lack of protection they received from the MLBPA and the unique role they played in allowing for a surplus labor army for baseball itself.
Two comments on that piece spurred my interest. First was a correction from the charming and intelligent Jason Wojciechowski, noting that I was incorrect or, at least, unwise to say that minor leaguers were represented by the MLBPA. He’s right, too; before they are major leaguers, minor leaguers do not have standing with the union. In a perfect world they might, but this is a systemic problem with the union, and one I should have noted, despite how much I admire MLB’s incredibly strong player power (paging Jonathan Lucroy).
Another comment followed from Jason’s, however, which is somewhat less easily answered. SChandler admirably took up the mantle of free-market enterprise (admirable not because free-market enterprise is especially admirable, but because they knew that it would be an unpopular position). Playing advocate for the system, SChandler asked:
What do you all not understand about free market enterprise…you say that ownership could pay minor leaguers what they deserve. What exactly is that figure? I contend that the market has set the price. If minor leaguers think they are unfairly treated, they are not slaves and don’t have to continue.
I’m not bringing this comment up to rip it, though I do disagree with its premise and conclusions. On the contrary, I think it’s a very important point because a plurality of fans and, more importantly, team owners ostensibly agree with it. So, to flip the initial question around, let me ask again: What is it that I understand about free-market enterprise that I don’t like?
There are three things, as it happens, and each (fortunately) corresponds with a sentence of SChandler’s comments. So first, one thing that is problematic about free-market enterprise is that it infuses morality into the concept of payment, which we see here in the word “deserve.” I also used the word “deserve” in my original piece, but I was trying to imagine it more aspirationally—still I’ll take my lumps, as minor leaguers don’t “deserve” a specific pay, but are owed a fair pay. This is a fine distinction, but an important one, as it reflects the quick double move made in free-market negotiations of salary between labor and management. Management will point to their wealth and say “I earned this and deserve to keep it, morally” and then will pivot and say “the market, an amoral system of logic, has determined what labor deserves.” “Deserve” here looks like a moral right and an idealistic impossibility in the same breath.
So instead of “deserve,” let me put it this way: Minor leaguers have a salary that would account for their time, commitment, and future value, and that salary starts somewhere north of a living wage, not south. I don’t have the algorithms and actuarial charts in front of me to determine an exact number, nor am I sure that would produce a truly just amount, but that would be where to start. The place one should not start, and here’s the second point, is the market. And the reason we should not start with the market is that the market is rigged to pay out the house first. And naturally so—free-enterprise privileges those who have money to risk, lose, and otherwise invest in making future money. Again, I think if you’re okay with a group of more wealthy citizens controlling the movement of money, then free-market enterprise will work out wonderfully for you. I’m not, and nor, do I think, are most people who aren’t making somewhere north of living wage. But that’s admittedly a guess.
Finally, and tying back to baseball after a somewhat non-basebally column, minor leaguers are not, as SChandler points out, slaves to baseball. They could quit and try and find employment elsewhere. The problem is that in order to find something else to do, they would need to quit baseball. Before the massive edifice of the MLB was solidified, players had more options in offshoot leagues that would pitch tents and close house after one, two, five seasons. The risky early days of baseball were more like the true chaotic free enterprise libertarians long for, with clear entrepreneurial opportunities rising and falling, and the risk in the market palpably close for players and owners alike. And then? Well, then MLB consolidated it and became the only game in town for 100 years.
So yes, some minor leaguers might be able to hoof it to Korea or Japan. And I suppose if they washed out completely they might pitch for Independent Leagues for peanuts. But apart from literally leaving the country, players have one option and one option only if they want to pursue the career path that might offer them life-changing (or even life-sustaining) money: stick with the bad pay in the minor leagues. This goes doubly for top 100 prospects, who are effectively choosing to risk five years of middling-to-poor pay and no rights for the chance of making tens of millions in the future. And I’ll agree, that seems like a perfectly reasonable risk…except the risk is always, always on the side of labor.
MLB is a de facto monopoly—the endgame of free-market enterprise. No capitalist worth their salt as a profit-maker would want anything less than total market saturation, and the end of the road of total market saturation is a no-risk business model. Teams do not lose money, despite rising salaries. MLB certainly does not lose money, despite its misgivings about minor league salaries. The quid pro quo fantasy of free-market enterprise—I’ll take a risk on you and you’ll take a risk on me—is replaced by a coercive contract system: You can take a risk on yourself for four years, and I’ll profit either way.
So, if there’s something wrong with free-enterprise, it isn’t something that’s meant to be fixed through revision or reform—it’s an active feature of the system. That is what I understand about the free-market that I don’t care for, and it’s why I (and why the minor league community should, darn it!) admire the alternatives of the left.