Monday, May 25, 2009

Ultimate Reflections: Amateurism and Human Nature

Having spent the better part of the holiday weekend enjoying the Ultimate Players Association College Championships,* SWNID is now ready to pontificate on the political significance of this most elegant and underappreciated game.

Ultimate (formerly Ultimate Frisbee, the latter word now omitted to avoid giving pride of place to one manufacturer of discs) is played by two teams of seven on a rectangular field, roughly three quarters the size of a football field. Each team attempts to throw a flying disc (Frisbee) successfully to teammates, without running with the disc or letting the disc fall to the ground or out of bounds, until at last a team member catches the disc in the end zone. The opposing team tries to prevent successful thows and catches without making significant physical contact with opponents. When the disc falls, is knocked down, goes out of bounds or is dropped, the opposing team takes over the throwing and catching.

Played competitively and recreationally all over the world, Ultimate is simple to understand but challenging to players at any level of skill. At higher levels, it rewards spectators with views of exciting throws, catches and defensive efforts. The game demands skill, fitness, athleticism, teamwork, strategy and good judgment. And it may be the cheapest team sport ever invented: all that's required to play is a disc and plastic cones to mark the boundaries.

Notably Ultimate stresses countercultural competitive values. Rules are enforced by the players themselves, who call their own fouls and must settle contested calls amicably. Only at the highest level of competition are neutral "observers" at a match to handle disputed calls, with players still responsible first to try to agree on the application of the rules. Teams rate each other for "Spirit of the Game," and tournaments give a SOTG award to the highest rated.

In sum, Ultimate strives for what was once known as the code of the amateur: one plays for love of the sport and the competition, not for personal glory, money or prestige. The game commands a devoted following dedicated to keeping that tradition alive while promoting the game to prospective players and fans.

And it works. Mostly.

Our experience at the national tournament showed how SOTG goes. All players are happy to abide by the game's self-regulated culture when they are comfortably ahead or miserably behind. If, however, the game is close, it's more than possible for a team to call violations simply to stop play and break the opponents' flow. More than once did we see teams resort to calling chippy foul, consistently disallowed by the observer, to stop play and get the underdog team off its game.

Still, the larger result is pleasant. While other competitive sports seem dominated by players' attempts to break rules without detection by referees, Ultimate offers a glimpse of a more gracious approach to competition, regulated by a code of honor, personal pride and social pressure to enforce virtue. With such, players arguably have more liberty to play the game than is typical in tightly refereed sports.

In that respect, we think that Ultimate is a microcosm of many social issues. Fallen humans will do anything they can to take advantage for themselves. Laws and their enforcement can curb those impulses, but only so much. In fact, enforcement creates its own set of issues, as the enforcers are no less fallen than then rulebreakers.

The human penchant for getting an edge is so strong and so pervasive that nothing will stop it completely. But where a people decides to allow greater liberty by inculcating virtue with cultural enforcement, the curbs may just be effective enough to create a better life for most.

What's true for the game is true for the nation state. The nation that regulates and oversees as the solution to all ills becomes bound by its rules in ways that stifle the industry of those willing to play by the rules. The nation that keeps rules in check while inculcating virtue and enforcing it socially frees its people to become more self-regulated.

So, which is better: the government that bails out financial failure while promising a new regieme of regulations and enforcement, or a government that allows financial failure as the cautionary consequence of a lack of virtue and so promotes responsible liberty? We think we know the Ultimate answer.
*On a personal note, Son of SWNID's team, Williams [College] Ultimate Frisbee Organization or WUFO, finished tied for ninth in the twenty team field, selected by sectional and regional tournament play from across the country. The team won four in a row after dropping their first three to end as co-champions of the "placement" bracket.


Anthony said...

Agreeing with you more and more every day, especially with my job at Aldi...the only area where I would like more gov't. regulation is within the educations system. I'd like the gov't. to give equal resources to every school district, no matter the amount of money that district has. Other than that, I'm with you completely.

JB in CA said...

"The nation that keeps rules in check while inculcating virtue and enforcing it socially frees its people to become more self-regulated."

I'm curious as to how virtue is to be inculcated and socially enforced without rules.

Jon A. Alfred E. Michael J. Wile E. SWNID said...

JB, kindly forgive our vain attempt to discuss a complicated comparison in brief compass. In Ultimate, there are rules, but the teams themselves are primarily responsible for their enforcement. A "government" provides a point of final appeal, but the culture of the game shames players who don't work for fair observance. In other sports, teams are not responsible for enforcement of rules at all: officials do it.

The former is a microcosm of a society built on a government of liberty and a culture of virtue. The latter is a microcosm of a society built on a government of protection and enforcement and a culture of irresponsibility.

Neither eliminates bad behavior. That observation is used by advocates for stricter governmental rulemaking and enforcement, in effect taking the responsibility for virtue from the citizenry and turning it into law. The citizenry is no longer responsible to beware of danger or to inculcate virtue by education and social pressure. The government does all that.

By "rules" in your quotation refers to more extensive governmental laws with more extensive governmental enforcement.

JB in CA said...

Virtues don't just happen. People acquire them by habitually following rules: "Tell the truth," "Keep your promises," "Be fair," "Respect others," "Be self-disciplined." And those rules have many different sources: parents, schools, churches, community organizations, businesses, governments. If the non-governmental institutions are not doing enough to cultivate the virtues required to keep citizens (both leaders and followers) from causing an economic meltdown--and obviously they aren't--why shouldn't the government step in and try to get things back in order by establishing (more) rules to help us (re)cultivate them?

Jon A. Alfred E. Michael J. Wile E. SWNID said...

Of course, of course. And we affirm that government plays a role in the promotion of virtue. That makes us the Tory we are, not the libertarian some of our friends urge us to be.

Our point is against what is caricatured the "nanny state," where the government deigns to protect us from the world by setting and enforcing rules for nearly everything. What we argue is that the outcome is a people who actually abandon the cultivation of virtue in favor of gaming the rules.

And we would argue that one reason civic institutions have failed to cultivate virtue is precisely because government has sought to obviate it by imposing yet more regulations.

Our specific reference is to the financial crisis. Does the crisis illustrate that we need more rules to govern the marketplace? Or were people's irrational enthusiasms in significant part fueled by the (false) belief that the government's regulations had already make the financial environment safe from the downside of risk?

aaronburgess said...

Thank you for your libertarian metaphor! I can still hope.

Research in the social sciences tells us that social systems are fittest when they are allowed to self-organize (i.e. self-regulation through internal feedback loops such as values and contracts) than when they are centrally controlled or planned.

Social engineering (master planning) tends to stifle innovation and creativity (products of self-interested individuals) moving social systems towards equilibrium and eventual death (i.e. they become a closed rather than open system). The more our system is regulated the closer it creeps towards death.

The primary role of government? Simply to punish wrongdoers when they violate the harm principle (primum non nocere) and when they violate my God given liberty and free will.

Anonymous said...

Related, from Daniel Hannan's blog:

I like Rowan Williams. He is clever, measured and benign. Like Enoch Powell, he always does his listeners the courtesy of addressing them as his intellectual equals. And, like Enoch Powell, he often gets into trouble as a result, either because he has been genuinely misunderstood or because critics affect to misunderstand him.

His intervention on the subject of MPs' expenses is a case in point. In a world of sound-bites, it can easily be misinterpreted as his coming to the aid of a beleaguered political class ("Archbishop of Canterbury: humiliation of MPs must stop," was how The Times summarised his complex and cerebral argument).

In fact, Dr Williams is restating the case for personal morality. When we are made to do the right thing, we exercise no virtue. As he puts it: "Integrity is about what we value in ourselves or our work for its own sake - what's worth making sacrifices for, what we're glad to have done simply for the kind of act it is. If I do something just because I'm told to, or if I hold back from something simply because of fear that I shall be caught out, it's a very different business."

Quite so. This was Milton's argument. It is the basis of Protestantism, of liberalism, of the British conception of freedom. It is the foundation of modern Conservatism too. As Keith Joseph used to say, when you give people responsibility, you make them responsible. And, although Dr Williams quite properly refrains from saying so, it is the strongest possible argument against Gordon Brown's plan to subject MPs to an external quango. If you want the full argument against the PM's wretched (though, in the current climate, undoubtedly popular) plan, read this (link).