clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

John Rawls, Inequality and The Ethics of Tanking

Why having a problem with tanking is more problematic than tanking itself.

Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

One of the most persistent and important questions in political theory is this: how would the most just society look?

John Rawls was a 20th Century American political philosopher who approached that question from the outside, specifically, by posing the question not to people living within the system already, but by creating theoretical constructs called the original position and the veil of ignorance. The original position is an imaginary pre-societal point at which we design the values and mechanisms of the society we will later inhabit. To prevent the future denizens of this society from each attempting to mold it to his own advantage, Rawls imposes the veil of ignorance, a constraint that prevents any one person from knowing what place in this society he will inherit.

In short, Rawls restated, in more formal language, the sentiment of "walk a mile in another man's shoes" or "check your privilege" for the philosophy department at Harvard. The outcome of this thought experiment, Rawls suggests, is a society in which any economic or social inequality serves to benefit the least advantaged member of society, or where the worst off in relative terms will be best off in absolute terms--the maximin rule.

All of this relates to the Sixers and their approach to the forthcoming draft.

I have a problem arguing my unwavering support for the Sixers' current course of action to people who come into the discussion with the assumption that the Sixers' rebuild is wrong. (And if you think this is entirely about my getting defensive because I'm a Sixers fan, go find anything I've written about the Houston Astros in the past 18 months.) This is because the most strident critics of the Hinkie Rebuild come in with two premises I won't grant for the purposes of argument: 1) that the goal of a team is always to win games in the short term 2) that the NBA, as a system, trends toward parity or equality.

The NBA is just like the world at large in that its 30 teams have been placed at different points on a scale of utility. The Lakers have history, wealthy ownership, a massive media market and a city that's enticing to free agents. Teams like the Bobcats and Sixers have less enticing surroundings and the disadvantage of not even being the most popular basketball team in their respective media markets. Even the NFL, whose hard salary cap, greater interchangeability of talent and overwhelming financial might can shoehorn even the New York Giants and the Jacksonville Jaguars into a rough state of pareto optimality, suffers these issues. If the NFL isn't crudely egalitarian, how can we expect the NBA to be?

That necessitates controls--Zach Lowe called it "charity," but I prefer to call it a welfare state or democratic socialism. Charity assumes social stratification and a calcified order of inequality, while the welfare state or democratic socialism is Rawls' difference principle put to work. The best sports leagues aren't crudely egalitarian--otherwise they'd be almost completely random--but neither should the deck be stacked so heavily in favor of the naturally advantaged that access to the ultimate goal (championships, not regular-season wins for their own sake) is practically restricted to the few.

But sometimes the mechanisms that support our society are ugly, and when they are, you'll see waves of critics, who are either unaware of the benefit they themselves derived from such mechanisms (Stan Van Gundy), or in the camp of those who would benefit from the inequality an unrestricted system would create (Bill Simmons, more in his role as a Celtics fan than as a national columnist) decrying that ugliness and insinuating that the root cause of that ugliness is not the systemic disease of inequality, but the remedy that reduces its effect. It's like vaccine denialism--even if vaccines did cause autism in a small number of cases, which they don't, they still prevent smallpox, pertussis and measles in large numbers. And because we're unable to see the larger picture, or look at the world from the original position, we forget this.

And this is a battle we're losing, because rebuilding the way Hinkie is has the ultimate goal of contending for championships. Decry the empty WFC, but the past decade is a monument to the fact that if the Sixers reach the 30-odd win, 8-seed middle class mediocrity certain pundits would have them aspire to, they still don't fill the building or move the local cultural needle. The Sixers only hold the region's imagination for more than an instant nowadays if they're on the rise to a title. And it's harder to keep that imagination now than it was a decade ago, not only because the Sixers don't have Allen Iverson, but because the sports landscape is more crowded: In 2003, there was no Philadelphia Union, and nobody gave a shit about the Phillies.

What the Sixers are doing now at least has the end goal of returning to that level. If you have LeBron, you can go to the NBA Finals in Cleveland. If you have Durant, you can go to the NBA finals in Oklahoma City. If you have Duncan, you can go to the NBA Finals in San Antonio. That's the goal, and it won't happen this year. The goal of the Evan Turner and Spencer Hawes trades wasn't to lose--it's to set the Sixers up to win in years to come. It is the distilled rational pursuit of incentives.

If the most problematic part of the anti-rebuild rhetoric is its lack of recognition of the structural inequality of the NBA, the second-most problematic part is its shortsightedness, as if the world would end at the end of the regular season. Even if the Sixers do lose their last 36 games, this season has been a writeoff since Andrew Bynum went bowling and Sam Hinkie traded Jrue Holiday for two first-round picks. Sure, it's ugly now, but isn't expecting instant gratification the kind of thing these norm-obsessed finger waggers usually wag their fingers about? It's like this with the Phillies, too--building a contending team from scratch takes time, often years, and if I could choose between winning 10 or 20 or even 30 more games this year, and becoming a legitimate title contender even one year sooner, I'd choose the second path every time, without hesitation.

Tanking--even if this is tanking, when the Sixers are still playing hard every night and evaluation potential role players for down the road instead of, say, sitting Paul Pierce with phantom injuries--is ugly, but it's the logical course of action. Any attempt to eliminate it, as Lowe points out in his article, either makes the original problem of inequality worse, or merely changes the point at which it becomes a good idea to make your team worse. NBA GMs are increasingly smart people, and they will respond to incentives. If anyone has a better idea, one that gives all 30 teams a chance to win a title without incentivizing occasional short-term ugliness or relying on individual teams acting suboptimally, I'm all ears.

To commissioner Adam Silver's credit, he's been a steadfast supporter of the Sixers throughout the Hinkie Rebuild, and it might be that he's just got a longer perspective than people who think the Sixers are more unwatchable after they traded Evan Turner. Putting good players on bad teams is a necessary hedge against hopeless and lasting inequality, and if the side effects of the cure for that inequality are occasionally unpleasant--and I agree that they are--the disease is even more so.

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for the Liberty Ballers Daily Roundup newsletter!

A daily roundup of Philadelphia 76ers news from Liberty Ballers