There is no evidence, as far as I know, that Adam Smith ever heard of the game of baseball (for the record, ChatGPT considers it “highly unlikely”). Nonetheless, the two were, broadly speaking, contemporaries and compatriots. The first game of which a record exists was played in Surrey, England in 1749, only a year after Smith began lecturing at the University of Edinburgh in his native Scotland. As with the economic system he essayed in The Wealth of Nations, baseball would find its greatest expression in the United States, where the earliest records of it being played are not far from the year of Smith’s passing in 1790.
Technically, Smith was not an economist but a moral philosopher, and for my money baseball is the most moral of all the major sports, just as the free-market system is the most moral way to allocate a nation’s scarce economic resources.
Consider the alternatives. American football, for example, is thoroughly authoritarian. It is barbaric. It is war (I say this as someone who loved it above all sports for most of my life). From the coach to the quarterback to the other players, all action and thought is dictated and drilled from above. A football team resembles nothing so much as a Soviet-era communist factory, a single great machine with many moving parts, each taught (as New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick famously does) to focus only on their narrow job. Upward mobility, say from the grunts of the offensive line to the glamor-positions of quarterback or receiver, is virtually non-existent. Time starts and stops by a complex series of rules like the punching of a workers’ clock.
As for basketball, soccer and ice hockey, they resemble nothing so much as socialism. Less tightly scripted than football, but similarly focused on a collective effort by a group of players to advance toward a goal through passing, dribbling, and assists. In his essay “A Perfect Game,” David Bentley Hart sees these (and football) simply as variations of what he deprecatingly calls “the oblong game, a contest played out on a rectangle between two sides, each attempting to penetrate the other’s territory to deposit some small object in the other’s goal or end zone.”
In baseball, the game is played on a diamond, with the hitter being one player against the world. Solitary practice, something exceptional in most team sports, is the norm in baseball. Corey Seager, the 2023 World Series MVP, is barely visible to his teammates in the 6-7 hours before a game, hiding in corners of the park pursuing a very individualized (and highly successful) regimen.
Even the defense allows for a great deal of individual initiative and play. The outfielders exist practically on islands, waiting for action to come to them. Pitchers, especially when they are doing well, are typically left completely alone by their teammates between innings. And the in-game discussions between pitcher and catcher (through hand signs or electronic devices) are just that, back-and-forth conversations and persuasion, a marketplace of ideas.
Is it a coincidence that the baseball craze in the U.S. started around the time of the Civil War, when individual freedom was preparing to take a great leap forward, or that it was the first major American sport to racially integrate less than a century later?
Like a market-based economy, baseball functions within rules. Foul lines, for instance, radiate out from the batter to define a playing field on which individual creativity and productivity are encouraged and rewarded. For the batter’s purposes, the diamond extends to the edge of the universe, though in practice even the best major league players rarely hit balls completely out of the stadium.
The rules of baseball create the possibility of failure, and out of this comes the joy of a well-played game. A player who fails with the bat two out of three times becomes a superstar. Likewise, a market economy also creates the possibility of failure. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, approximately 65 percent of US businesses fail within their first decade. But the result, in aggregate, is a wonder, as the principle of consumer sovereignty elevates resource-use toward its highest, most valued purposes. As if by magic, Smith’s invisible hand turns the chaotic churn of failure and success into the most powerful economic engine the world has ever seen.
In recent decades, baseball has been declining in popularity in the US, especially among younger people, many of whom may be drawn to the physical intensity of football, the global nature of soccer, or the glamor of basketball. It’s also not the best of times for free markets, certainly not in the US, where we have tumbled from 4th to 25th in the global ranking of economic freedom. Most Americans aged 18-24 (54 percent) now view capitalism negatively.
The remarkable, roughly three-century run of success by Adam Smith’s free market system has coincided with a similarly remarkable elevation of individual freedom in matters of both work and thought. These two facts are undoubtedly related. But if socialism continues to creep up, will this historical period turn out to have been merely a pause? Will the long eons of top-down economic control by power elites become the norm again?
As in the world of sport, we can hope not, that in fact better days are yet ahead. When the winter is over, they will start playing baseball again.