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What Sports Can Teach Us about Politics

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What can sports teach us about civil society and federal agencies like the Department of Health and Human Services? In his most famous speech, Senator Robert A. Taft (1889–1953) answered that question.

Taft was a passionate defender of private enterprise in domestic policy as well as non-intervention in foreign affairs. This made him oppose the New Deal policies adopted under President Franklin D. Roosevelt (1933–1945).

Before FDR’s presidency, most Americans embraced a general preference for  limited government and personal freedom, including the pursuit of economic opportunity. Over the FDR years, Taft watched as public opinion pivoted to view big government as the solution to the supposed problems of capitalism.

Taft’s speech “Equal Justice Under Law“ was delivered on October 5, 1946. It was a plea for business and industry to return to the “American Way of Life,” which rested on liberty and equal justice under law.

Taft quoted the American historian James Truslow Adams (1878–1949), who deeply admired a trait of the British: respect for law and order. Since most laws at the time protected person and property, obeying them was key to establishing a civil society. By “civil society,” Adams and Taft meant more than a private sector that functioned without government; they meant a society in which people interacted without violence even when disagreement flared. Respect for law and order made them use legal solutions instead.

But the respect was conditional. People needed to believe the law was fair in order for them to accept the rulings of a tribunal when those rulings were not favorable. That is, as long as the courts administered reasonable law in an unbiased manner, people accepted their verdicts and did not resort to violence. People needed to believe there was equal justice.

Adams drew an intriguing parallel to sports, which Taft featured in his speech. Adams wrote, “Sport, which for centuries has played so large a part in British life, has had enormous influence in fields apparently wholly remote from it. Unless games are all to end in fights and bloody noses, there must grow up a willingness to give and take, to accept decisions in good faith, whether winners or losers.”

Sports expresses both opposition and good will. The opposition: each side wishes to win by besting the other. The good will: winning is based on merit and occurs according to mutually agreed upon rules. An overall confidence in the fairness of umpires is necessary if bloody noses are to be avoided. The rules must be fair, and their application must be equal.

Civil society also expresses opposition and good will. For example, businesses compete with each other for customers. The rivalry is conducted according to agreed upon rules, such as nonviolence, and serious breaches of conduct are taken to arbitrators or judges, who act as umpires. Merit wins. But an overall confidence in the fairness of the rules is a prerequisite to avoiding violence and collapse.

To Adams’s insight, Taft added, “I cannot over-emphasize the importance of this attitude, the willingness to accept the decisions of an impartial tribunal made in accordance with the law, even if that decision is thought to be wrong.” When people lose trust in such tribunals, Taft believed violence was inevitable. “Only by this attitude,” he cautioned, “do we avoid civil war such as developed when this country refused to accept the verdict of Lincoln’s election.” The one time Americans had lost all confidence in the equal justice of “the system,” they had killed each other in unprecedented numbers.

Taft warned against a new feature of American life that could destroy that trust — and civil society along with it: the federal agencies that had been established under FDR.

Federal administrative agencies are bureaucracies created by the White House to direct and supervise the implementation of legislation and executive policy on a nationwide level. Examples are the Department of Justice, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Securities and Exchange Commission. The head of an agency is appointed by the president and serves at his pleasure. Although they are accountable only to the president, the agencies wield tremendous power over commerce and the everyday lives of Americans.

Despair over the Great Depression gave FDR a mandate to establish an unprecedented number of federal agencies in order to redefine American society. The hundred-plus New Deal bureaucracies enforced what were known as the 3Rs: Relief (government employment), Recovery (government stimulation), and Reform (regulation of the financial world). These presidential agencies and policies constituted a massive shift of power away from Congress to the executive branch. The agencies were autonomous and nontransparent, enforcing policies against which there was little hope of appeal.

Taft avidly opposed almost all of the federal bureaucracies.  Although they were said to correct social problems that the marketplace caused, he believed they did the opposite. They crippled the economy and created social problems in the process of expanding government to the benefit of elites.

The agencies devastated society in another, more subtle manner. They destroyed public confidence in the American system because they were the antithesis of equal justice. Taft declared, “Few have any confidence in the impartiality of federal action. It is essential not only that we have law, but that we have a faith in the impartiality of our government boards and officials who administer the law.” The biased federal agencies were akin to an umpire who broke all rules of the game to favor one team. In the process, the umpire destroyed the sport that was based on the rules. Without a sense of fair laws being equally applied, society would give way to violence.

Taft’s words have particular relevance to the present day for at least two reasons.

First, President Obama openly declares FDR to be his role model. True to his word, Obama has aggressively expanded the network of federal agencies to impose his own version of a New Deal on America. He is far from the only president to wield such power, of course, but Obama has used it with particular abandon. Consider the expansion of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). According to Downsizing the Federal Government, HHS has become America’s first trillion-dollar department, planning to spend $1.1 trillion in 2016 to support 73,000 employees and “528 different subsidy programs.” That’s “$8,800 a year for every household.”

In December 2014, the Washington Examiner reported that the average number of regulations produced by the Obama administration every year was 3,500. The average person bears the financial and compliance cost of these intrusive laws, against which they have no effective recourse or appeal. The agencies constitute a shadow government that promotes a deep disrespect for law. Few people now trust in equal justice.

The second reason Taft’s words should resound is that the approaching election is bitterly divisive. From the podium, he warned, “I think the same characteristic [respect for law] is shown in our willingness to accept the decision of the people in fair elections. An election may be won by only one vote, but ninety-nine out of a hundred people feel that the public has spoken and that the decision must be accepted, as a matter of course, as a basic feature of our life.”

If equal justice is transparently dead, then there is credibility to Donald Trump’s prediction of “riots“ should he be denied the GOP nomination. There is credibility to the threat from a leading #BlackLivesMatter activist when he commented that people “such as myself are fully hell bent on inciting riots” if Trump is elected.

When no unbiased umpires remain, players either leave the field or they start to bloody noses. Either one makes civil society teeter.

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    Wendy McElroy is an author for The Future of Freedom Foundation, a fellow of the Independent Institute, and the author of The Reasonable Woman: A Guide to Intellectual Survival (Prometheus Books, 1998).