Unintended Consequences and the L.A. Lakers

Tom Ley has a great column at Deadspin on the emergence of the L.A. Lakers as a hilariously lopsided “superteam”:

First, let’s remember something: David Stern and the owners did everything they could to convince us that their lockout was about restoring competitive balance to the league by restricting player movement and thus the building of superteams. That line of reasoning was always specious and not a little cynical. Superteams come together because of maximum salaries, not despite them. There is a maximum dollar amount that Dwight Howard can make each year, and that dollar amount doesn’t approach his value on an open market. If Howard—or any other great player—can’t get true value out of his contract, he’ll go looking for it in other places: on a great team in a large market, for instance. The max salary limits the very best thing that teams like Orlando have to offer: money.

This leads me to my central fixation, which is the notion that most of our political and social conflicts are best understood as gang wars between people with different kinds of capital — people with cultural capital waging war on people with economic capital, or people with erotic capital deploying it to gain access to economic or cultural or social capital, and so forth. Egalitarianism in one of these spheres can have profoundly inegalitarian consequences in others. The most prosaic example is the person bereft of erotic capital who amasses economic capital in order to build a more satisfying life.

One of the more commonly expressed anxieties about modern market societies is that they are defined by a successful imperialism of economic capital, which risks subordinating all other human values to the pursuit of wealth. The end result would be an arid monoculture. My own view is that this is wrong. We fixate on the imperialism of economic capital because it is a fundamentally more tractable idea than cultural or social or erotic capital, and so we underestimate the ways in which these non-pecuniary endowments shape the intellectual and social playing field. 

We’ve gone far afield from the Lakers. But the idea that a max salary will curb the desire of players to achieve distinction by playing on the best possible team (see Richard Robb on the “economics of becoming“) or to have ready access to the most desirable pool of potential mates, which is a not unreasonable description of southern California (this, incidentally, is why celebrities are often indifferent to taxes — you can’t tax their real compensation, the aforementioned access), strikes me as naive. The paper-chasing instinct can actually be used to restrain even baser impulses, which, as Albert O. Hirschman recounts in The Passions and the Interests, was one of the early justifications for market society.

Reihan Salam — Reihan Salam is executive editor of National Review and a National Review Institute policy fellow.

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