The news that baseball’s highest paid player, Alex Rodriguez, along with twelve others have been suspended over doping has once again raised the issue of drugs in sports and there effect on performance. While I’m sure the philosophy behind regulating against performance enhancing drugs is intended to ensure fairness in one pillar of competition, economists may traditionally look at the topic differently leaving the normative issues aside.
More than likely an economist would evaluate the issue of banning drugs in a game theoretic sense. What I mean by this is that regulating against doping prevents a race to the bottom between athletes, who could strive to find superior drugs if they were permissible but alas would maintain the same relative position in the ranking (all the while carrying the increased costs of risks to their health).
A sub-optimal doping arms race could transpire. In the words of the Red Queen from Lewis Carrols’ Through the Looking Glass “it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place”. Taking the usual microeconomic assumptions of rationality, preference stability etc, I could see how economists would recommend a third party to regulate against drug use in sport given that game theory would predict that competition between athletes would lead to a ‘failed’ outcome.
What are the economic arguments for permitting the use of drugs to improve performance in sport?
A second reason may be to admit that all competitions are inherently unfair; the rules of the game, no matter how they are organised, will naturally confer a greater advantage on one party over another. Improved training methods and infrastructure may be available to some simply as they are luckily enough to have a particular nationality. By allowing drugs to be used it could counter intuitively ensure a fairer contest by allowing equal access to enhancements.
Thinking about the economics off doping and policy measures designed to prevent it does however carry with it a range of explicit and implicit psychological assumptions that are highly restrictive but allow economists model behaviours in a simplified manner, facilitatating formal predictions. To solve the doping problem, if it is a problem at all, economists may need to look beyond these tools. The works of Nobel laureate Elinor Ostrom would be a good place to start as sports, like the bulk of Ostrom's works, are about communities. Whether it is athletics, cycling or baseball the force of prohibiting third parties may be no match for the power of local social norms that are fostered and enforced within groups. Saying this and achieving this are however two different matters.