Breaking Bad (Rules)

Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past week you’re probably aware of the confessional interview Lance Armstrong had with Oprah Winfrey in which he revealed that he had been “doping” in order to gain a competitive advantage (or perhaps simply leveling the playing field as it has been reported that 20 of 21 top-3 finishers from 1999 to 2005 were also doping). In another recent story HSBC was fined a record $1.9 billion by the US Justice Department due to violation of several anti-money laundering statutes .

What do these two stories have in common? Each contains an apparent villain that has been dutifully brought to light or justice. But upon closer inspection we find neither party has done anything “wrong” in the traditional Judeo-Christian morality sense. They did not kill anyone. They did not steal anything. Armstrong did lie and liars are generally not held up in our society as paragons of virtue, but consider the context. He lied about violating a policy that is irrational and thus is nearly universally ignored. Imagine that your employer established a new policy: all employees are prohibited from drinking soda at work or at home. You know this policy is just silly so you ignore it. If asked by your employer concerning your soda status what do you do? Do you tell the truth and lose your job or do you lie and keep your job? I suspect most would lie over a rule this inane. It is easy to lie when the policy in question is just plain silly, universally ignored, and enforcement is basically impossible. Is “dope” free sport a noble goal? Sure it is. And so is a world free of all weapons. But just like with guns, that genie is out of the bottle. The last guaranteed dope free sporting event took place sometime in the 18th century. Anti-doping policies are disingenuous at best insofar as they give a free pass to mechanical technologies that enhance performance (e.g. high tech bikes that cost more than your car). If anti-doping policies were truly driven by a concern about eliminating “unfair” advantages then every cyclist would be required to ride the exact same model of bike and the genetically less endowed athletes would be permitted to “dope up” to the same VO2 max as their more genetically endowed competitors. Then everyone could cross the finish line together holding hands. Cum by yah.

If private organizations like UCI (International Cycling Union) want to ban doping that is their prerogative (although international treaties banning the practice (such as the US ratified “International Convention against Doping in Sport”, attempt to remove all such discretion from athletes and their athletic organizations). Perhaps the only place where Armstrong and others like him did err is that they did agree to the rules of that private organization when they joined. The most proper way to have proceeded would have been to have not joined any anti-doping organizations but rather to have formed a new entity that did permit doping. Athletes that dope can join that group, those that don’t are free to join any of the others. However I suspect the aforementioned treaty makes “doping permitted” groups illegal. In which case government again short-circuits market based solutions.

HSBC behaved similarly to Armstrong. They simply ignored all of the silly anti-money laundering rules and regulations. To understand why money laundering is considered “bad” consider who is leveling the claim: government. Money laundering can only occur in connection with illegal activities, however it is government that defines what is illegal. It is actually easy to end all money laundering; simply make such associated activities legal. If drug prohibition were ended there would be no drug money to launder. If governments ceased their interventionist policies or did not force people to remain part of their respective unions (Northern Ireland, Palestine, Chechnya, Serbia, Kurdistan, Basques, etc) all terrorism would end (and thus the associated laundering of money toward those ends). In other words, governments (or sometimes private groups) often create the very problems they then proclaim only they can remedy. When they eventually ensnare a violator they parade it around for all to see as both a sign of their effectiveness and as a warning. But we should be skeptical of any hunter who demonstrates his prowess by bagging a Holstein on his own property.