What's the steroid equilibrium?

The typical libertarian opinion on steroids is "Who cares? It's your body." Tyler Cowen offers an interesting take:

I don't usually recycle posts but this one is from the early days of MR, and my view on steroids hasn't changed much. Excerpt:

Note that the Olympics probably prosper more from competitive balance than from a single dominant country. Was it really so much fun for the rest of the world to watch the Soviets win all those medals? This would predict that the Olympics should take special care to ban performance-enhancing drugs, which is indeed the case.


Baseball is again thrown under a cloud, and one obvious question is how much we have close substitutes for our increasingly damaged pride in the sport. The likely eventual outcome is a long-run equilibrium where all performance enhancements are allowed, thereby placing an inefficient tax on amateurs and performers who don't need to be the very best.

A running friend pointed out ten or fifteen years ago that 100 yard dash world records are only set in the latter part of the lull between the introduction of tests for new steroids. There's something upsetting about the fact that athletic contests are less and less a measurement of your willingness to train, and more and more a measure of your body's responsiveness to arcane chemical cocktails. On the other hand, I don't see how to stop it, given that athletes at that level are pretty much insane. Asked whether they'd give up five years or ten of their life in order to be the world champion in your sport, most of them just kind of blink at you and try to figure out what the trick in the question is. Then they ask if Satan has empowered you to cut that kind of sweetheart deal. So the lesser risks posed by steroids are probably not going to deter very many of them.

Yes, to some extent, we're selecting for athletes who are willing to do extreme and dangerous things to their body in order to win--but then, most olympic and pro athletes, except perhaps swimmers, are destroying their bodies anyway and we find that laudable. Athletes from runners to pro football players will all mostly end their lives crippled by joint problems and old injuries; boxers will end their lives ten or so IQ points lower than they started. But no one worries that we're selecting our athletes for a willingness to trade a healthy old age for victory now. And if you're willing to do to your shoulders what pitchers do to theirs, I'm not sure how big a step it is to inject testosterone analogs.

Given that, what's the healthy equilibrium? As Tyler suggests, I think it's probably allowing the drugs. That way athletes aren't benefiting from asymmetrical information; everyone has the same opportunity to trade health and sanity for wealth and fame.

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Megan McArdle is a columnist at Bloomberg View and a former senior editor at The Atlantic. Her new book is The Up Side of Down.

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