Of Baseball and Justice

Yesterday, Albert Pujols, outfielder for the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, hit a long home run in Detroit to notch his 2,000th RBI. 2,000 career RBIs is an amazing feat and the ball that Pujols hit would likely have been heading to Cooperstown in normal situations. But the situation is not normal. The fan who caught the ball, Ely Hydes, refused to give the ball back to Pujols. On Facebook, Ball State economist Steve Horwitz (friend of the blog) wrote of Ely:

And today's Asshole of the Day award goes to...

It's his right, but that don't make it right.

David Henderson (also friend of the blog) responded:

You really think he's an asshole for not transferring wealth from himself, who's probably not wealthy, to a very wealthy guy? Why?

Henderson expanded his point at EconLog.

Henderson and Horwitz are two dear people to me and I owe massive professional and personal debts to both. Whenever I find myself disagreeing with one or the other, I do so hesitantly. But I think, in this case, Henderson misses the point of Horwitz’s comment. And Adam Smith can help us see why.

In The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Adam Smith discusses the virtue of justice. Smith finds there are really three versions of justice: 1) Commutative Justice (simply put, not messing with other people’s stuff), 2) Distributive Justice (that is, properly deploying one’s resources), and 3) an unnamed justice which I will call by the term coined by my teacher Daniel Klein Estimative Justice. Estimative Justice is the proper estimating of an object (all this can be found on pages 269-270 of the Liberty Fund edition). The three justices are interrelated, but are different. And we can use this framework to consider the difference in opinion between Horwitz and Henderson.

Both Horwitz and Henderson acknowledge the property right of Mr. Hydes. The ball was hit out of the field of play. Mr. Hydes caught the ball. By normal property rights convention, Hydes owned the ball, not Pujols or Major League Baseball. Indeed, we can see this property right in action given that MLB had to ask that Mr. Hydes give the ball back. When Mr. Hydes refused to give the ball to MLB officials, he was well within his rights (as acknowledged by all parties involved and the commentators). In the terminology above, Hydes was being commutatively just. He was not messing with other people’s stuff.

But commutative justice is not the end of the story. We now ask whether or not his behavior was distributatively just. The ball was his property. What would constitute a “becoming use of his own [property]?” It would seem, again appealing to convention, that the becoming use of Mr. Hydes’ own would be to give the ball back to Pujols. It is common practice among sports fans to return historic or important-event balls to the players (such as a 1st career home run). Mr. Hydes’ behavior would seem to violate that norm. Thus, we can say his behavior, while commutatively just is distributively unjust. This is what Horwtiz means when he says “It’s his right [to not give up the ball], but that doesn’t make it right.” Mr. Hydes’ behavior, while well within the bounds of rules, would not be pleasing to an impartial spectator such as Horwitz.

But now we have Henderson who comes along, and he is also an impartial spectator, and see’s Horwtiz’s estimation of the action. Henderson is estimating Horwtiz’s estimation and finds it lacking. In our terminology, Henderson is saying Horwtiz is being estimatively unjust. Horwitz is failing to properly estimate the object/action in question. However, I, also an impartial spectator, judged Horwitz estimation to be just.

Why is there this disagreement? Neither Horwitz nor Henderson are dummies or unenlightened buffoons. They are both genuine people. I imagine they would agree largely with what I have written here, both as a description of events and they layout of Adam Smith’s discussion on justice. Why do they disagree?

They disagree because, unlike the rules of commutative justice, which are precise and accurate, the rules of distributive justice are loose, vague, and indeterminate. We cannot readily appeal to some guidebook of human behavior to determine whether something is distributively just or not. It will depend on a lot of things. Does the fact that Mr. Hydes is a law student with a child on the way matter for our DJ estimation? Does the fact that Mr. Pujols is wealthy, and thus could buy the ball from Hydes, matter? To what extent do they? If Horwtiz is more of a baseball fan than Henderson, would he have a different insight? These are not precise and the difference in opinion comes from Horwitz’s and Henderson’s different interpretations of these imprecise rules.

In closing, I do want to note that this process of estimating is a recursive process. Horwitz can estimate his earlier estimation in light of new knowledge and interpretation. Or Henderson can estimate his earlier estimation. Or another party can come in, etc etc. It is through this recursive nature that we better come to understand what truly are pleasing arrangements.