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It's not clear to me why the baseball players' union didn't advocate a stricter doping regime much earlier; this seems like a situation in which collusion to prevent a form of competition among the union's members would benefit (almost?) all of them. There is a huge rent-seeking component to this, and the burden falls primarily on members of a legal cartel, but the cartel has curiously resisted anti-competitive measures that would eliminate it.

Daniel Winton

I enjoyed reading your blog, as I do most weeks. I noticed one factual error, however, in your analysis of doping in sports. You commented on Lance Armstrong's "six consecutive triumphs in the Tour de France." Lance proudly won seven consecutive Tours, not six. Lance heroically won the Tour de France in '99, '00, '01, '02, '03, '04, and '05.

-Danny Winton

Huang Lechuan

I agree with Professor Becker that doping in sports is indeed a problem, because the marginal utility between the first runner up and the winner is so large that its future value may well offset the detrimental effect on health in years to come.

Strangely, it seems to me that a policy allowing all kinds of drugs is not as bad as it may sound. Such a policy can eventually make athletes' choices more rational.

Since most athletes participate in sports not for health reasons, (notice that how many athletes get seriously hurt and you will not disagree,) the policy's result will inevitably be that everyone (who wishes to compete for the first prize) will use drugs to improve performance. However, the comparative strengths of athletes will remain constant; sadly, as comparative strength is all that matters, drug consumption will resemble a heated arms race. While this is apparently undesirable for health, it nevertheless increases the cost of trying to be the top athletes; what is more, as most athletes take drugs, they as a group will suffer reputation loss, making the incentive to become "the best" less and less. Therefore, it is highly possible that a balance will be reached, and only those "willing" will take a reasonable amount of drugs.

Meanwhile, there will always be people who want to lower cost (to fame and fortune); to do that, some will try to stay "clean" and exercise more, some may even seek healthier drug solutions. If harmly drugs which can significantly boost performance are invented, why not let athletes take them?

"Clean" players can, of course, take voluntary tests to prove their innocence in order to increase public acceptance.

David Grove

I assume you meant to refer to Barry Bonds, not to his father.


Landis has not been stripped of his title yet.

Joshua Doherty

You make a good point that often gets lost in the PED debate. Namely, there is a "vicitm" beyond the individual PED using athlete. For example, assume that prior to PEDs all athletes in a sport are stratafied by natural ability. The next day, a weaker athlete uses PEDs and gets an advantage over some or all of the athletes above him. This will force the stonger athletes to use PEDs to resotre the pre-PED heirarchy. In this sense, the stonger athelets are forced byt he weaker to engage in PED use that can be harmful to their health; thye are the "victims" of the "crime" of PED use by weaker athletes.


Lance Armstrong is not remembered for having "successfully fought off continuing claims that he used dope" anywhere but in the United States of America, where people apparently tend to be easily convinced by a pseudo black and white argument(in this case: defamation by the evil & envious French). You might want to check if you have used biased information. Whoever thinks that Armstrong had the balls to win "seven consecutive Tours", as Mr. Winton pointed out, without using illegal performance-enhancing drugs has clearly not understood the way professional cycling works.


I am not so sure that the audience is mostly interested in relative performance rather than absolute performance. Consider the case of female soccer as opposed to male soccer. Male soccer is one of the most popular sports measured by TV audience whereas female soccer is not very popular. Yet, there are as many victories in female soccer as in male soccer.


I think this issue is an example of the limits of economic analysis. It may not be rational to ban doping when you consider other forms of training and training aids which might be harmful. It might not be rational to ban doping even though it is clearly harmful to atheletes; doing so is a paternalistic argument, and you might say that a free society demands that atheletes be permitted to damage themselves if they consider that the trade-off is worth it. After all, boxing is extremely damaging over a long term, and carries the risk of being also damaging in the short term (consider the British boxer Michael Watson, confined to a wheelchair after one fight), yet I don't hear calls for it to be banned.

Comparing atheletes across generations is something I find irritating. Any objectively measurable sport shows a continual improvement in athletic standards since the time records were maintained, no doubt due to advances in sport science, equipment and general living standards, as well as increasing populations and increasing wealth, both of which produce a larger pool for athletes. (That improvement does not in any way denegrate the achievements of athletes past, who might have been just as successful if they had today’s advantages.) It may well be rational to say that doping is just another advance in training techniques and equipment.

What it comes down to, however, is that sport is an entertainment business. We watch it for enjoyment. Our enjoyment is provided in every sport by rules which produce what we consider to be a ‘fair contest’ or a ‘clean fight’. We regulate equipment so that sport science doesn’t have the last word. We don’t allow wealthy sports teams to bribe opponents to underperform, despite the fact that we don’t seek to regulate many of the other advantages money gives athletes.

Steroids come into the same category, there is something intrinsically distasteful about them: they detract from the idea of ‘natural’ athletes that we admire, people whose natural ability and hard graft enable them to reach heights the rest of us can not. It is not only illegal substances to which we object: would anyone want a professional snooker player (or pool, for the American readers) to be able to swig a jug of ale to steady the nerves before a crucial shot? Doing so, or using beta blockers, would reduce or remove an essential element of such sports – holding one’s nerve under pressure. Perhaps also we would not wish to see our idols reduced to the pathetic state that steroids can produce, thought that doesn’t stop us watching boxing, which can have even worse effects.

There are problems in policing a ban on such substances but so too are there problems in policing many other sporting regulations – the construction of F1 cars or America’s Cup Yachts, for example – and I still think that the distasteful aspect of doping is worth the arms race between those concerned with concealing substances and those concerned with identifying them.


I think that using drugs in sport is outrageous given any theoretical context that you may want to use to analyze it. The outrage comes from the fact that the athlete accomplishes feats that the audience think are on the up and up-when in fact they are drug induced.

When someone runs the mile, the 100 meter dash or hits more home runs, we assume that training methods are better today than they were when the original record was set. When someone does it on drugs, it takes the luster off the performance. Not all drugs are created equal, and not all people respond to drugs in the same manner with the same benefit. I may have a person mixing the drug cocktail that may be more experienced than your guy, and I may perform better only becuase I have a better druggist-not because I physically was more gifted than you.

You may make the argument that one could use different natural nutritional methods, and training methods to improve performance. However, everyone can use them, and it doesn't matter if I eat a banana from the Caribbean or Singapore, it's still a banana. Drugs vary, and drug cocktails vary.

This argument also excludes the potential detriment on the entire sporting society. If I know that the pros are doped, then I will start doping in college to be able to compete. If I know the collegiate athletes are doping, I will start in high school. If I know that I can't make my high school team unless I am doping, guess where it starts. Already, kids in larger high schools are having a tough time making teams. Their parents buy them private lessons, conditioning coaches, they play in club sports outside of the high school season. They do this all to get a college scholarship, of which only about 1% of all high school athletes will receive.

If you allow drug use in sport, you will effectively be telling the kids in little league that they need to dope to be successful. Because the difference between being a super star and and also ran is so minute at the upper levels of sport, the copetitive environment of sport will force all athletes to dope to try and get an edge.


while i still don't know what to believe about landis, i do know that a lot of peopple, yourselves included, have it wrong about his test results -- he did not have elevated levels. from floydlandis.com:

"It is widely known that the test in question, given as a urine sample after my victorious ride on stage 17 of the Tour de France, returned an abnormal T/E ratio from the “A” sample. I want to be entirely clear about one point of the test that has not been fairly reported in the press or expressed in any statements made by international or national governing bodies; the T value returned has been determined to be in the normal range. The E value returned was LOW, thus causing the skewed ratio. This evidence supports my assertion that I did not use testosterone to improve my performance."


Although there has been talk of the "arms race" effect, no one seems to draw what I think is the obvious conclusion. The competitive nature of athletes will lead to them to take unsafe doses. This may be paternalism, but in the same way the entire FDA is paternalistic. I would also argue that detection is already difficult enough and that it would be impossible to implement a detection scheme that allowed athletes to use only a certain amount of a substance.

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marilyn w

This is the first time I have read your blog.

The arguments you apply to sports doping apply equally to the hiring of illegal aliens. Subcontracting is the preferred way to incorporate illegals because the contractor at the top, and the customer can both deny knowlege of the practice.

In the bidding wars, the subcontractor who hires illegals can always outbid his legal competitors. This practice forces honest subcontractors to switch to illegals or lose bids. This natural pressure to cheat is forcing more and more job markets to switch to illegals. Thus migrant farm work expands to meat processing, cleaning and landscape services, road construction, and now skilled trades of carpentry, roofing, electrical etc.

The second comparison to sports doping: is anyone hurt by illegal hiring? Illegals, while technically required to obey the same laws as citizens, are under less oversight. Driving a car without proper insurance might end up in deportation for an illegal until he crosses the border again. The citizen has to pay up because he is not leaving. Ten children living in the back of a van may result in loss of custody for a citizen, but a temporary deportation for the illegal. Citizens are not be allowed to avoid legal obligation.

If a hospital squeezes an illegal for payment, the illegal can change his identity, or go back over the border, so hospitals follow the money and focus collection on legal residents, and jack up their charges to cover the illegal void.

Citizens need more money to live here, and cannot compete against illegals on wage demands but their wages are being forced down by the unfair illegal alien hiring practices.

Subcontactors are like the baseball players. Legal residents of the US are like the small manufacturer being forced out by foreign computer chip makers flooding the US with below cost chips.

Aside from financial burden, citizens are seeing their votes being diluted at the ballot box by non-citizens voting under motor-voter registration rules that prevent stict scrutiny of citizenship.

I recently renewed my driver's license. I was told to check here to verify that I was a citizen, and sign my name. I was not asked if I was a citizen.

Wang Yikai

To Huang Lechuan:
First, the rationale for banning doping is not that it does harm to the athlete, but that while doping benefits the user, it relatively decreases the utility of the competitors, because of the externality.
Second, your conclusion that allowing doping will lead to another balance rests on the assumption that all the competitors are equal when using doping. However, it is wrong. When allowing doping, the winner will not be the one who is the strongest but the one who is most apt to the doping, which contradicts with the spirit of sports. The result will be that too much attention will be paid to the research of doping. Perhaps, the one who will win if doping is banned can not win because he does not adapt to the doping.
Therefore, even if the doping has no detrimental impact on the athletes, it still should be banned because it allows unequal information and competition.

To Divine:
When it comes to the competitors in certain sport, it is right to say "the audience is mostly interested in relative performance rather than absolute performance"
When it comes to the comparison between two kinds of sports, the audience certainly care about the absolute performance.
This article involves the former.

To James:
As what I said to Huang Lechuan, doping not only does harm to the user himself, but also is deleterious to the competitors, because doping may reduce the others' relative performance. What's more, the loss is undetectable thus the athletes’ decision about whether he uses doping affects both himself and the other competitors, which is unfair to others.
Admittedly, boxing harms the health, but the harm is visible thus the competitors can do their decision with sufficient information.


I would be interested to hear a coherent argument for why a non-perfomance-enhancing drug like marijuana is included among the World Anti-Doping Agency's banned drugs, whereas alcohol is generally not.

fernando hadba

Dr. Becker,
are your argument about doping diametrically different from your drug liberalization defense? What is the difference?


Well, one positive aspects of this ban is motivation of science in reserach in that field to find new, less obvious, more healthy and not yet banned drags. It is always the pressure to make "dope" less noticeable, less chemical, more "natural". New drags can be used later for other purposes than to improve enhancements in sports. Thos could become soft medicine or enhancement performance for ordinary people.

Brett Bellmore

"First, the rationale for banning doping is not that it does harm to the athlete, but that while doping benefits the user, it relatively decreases the utility of the competitors, because of the externality."

This is equally true of proper nutrition, exercise, training... Anything that increases the performance of one competitor, by definition relatively decreases the utility of other competitors.

No, the original rational was that "doping" increased performance in the short term, with serious health consequences in the long term, and the fear was that if it was permitted, all the competitors would be forced to ruin their health in order to have any chance of winning.... A rationale, which as Holdemphile notes, improving medical technology has rendered obsolete. Modern "doping" may even have long term health benefits.

No, today's rationale for banning "doping" is some kind of extension of drug war hysteria, nothing more.


"No, today's rationale for banning "doping" is some kind of extension of drug war hysteria, nothing more."

Brett: We don't need a rationale for banning doping. Just like we don't need a rationale for having first base 90 feet from home, or a rationale for pass interference, a rationale for offsides, or a rationale for net height. There need not be a rationale for any rule in sports, and to me, the ban on certain substances amounts to just that, a rule in sports. As far as I'm concerned, those can be totally arbitrary - why do football players have to recover their own fumbles in the endzone in the final two minutes but not outside them? It seems clear from the public discussion that most fans are against allowing certain substances. Hence, they are banned. That, by itself, should be enough to keep them banned. We can try to measure utilities and externalities and whatever, but professional [and now, college] sports is ultimately a product responding to the laws of supply and demand. If people want to see baseball players free of steroids, if only because when they grew up players weren't on steroids, then that's what we give them and that's the rule. I really tink the discussion here is essentially academic [in the pejorative sense], although good issues have been raised here. But sports is here to give the people what they want. And the ban is what we want.


From an individuals point of view the problem can be related to game theory, athletes have the choice of taking or not taking drugs, in a one shot game it may be beneficial to cheat and gain higher utility from additional monetary and non-tangible rewards, however in a multi-period game the other athletes will cheat leading to a sub-optimal outcome. They are still competing with the same marginal differences in performance but with a lower utility due to long term health effects.

A preferred Pareto outcome would be for no-one to use drugs which is why we have regulations to try and co-ordinate an agreement, thus maximising utility.


Nothing lowers the prestige of lawmaker than passing laws that can not be enforced. The expected disutility of lost health is lower, than the utility of gained probability to win. So it's better to lift the restrictions.

Offtopic: Dear economists, human capital experts and just Becker's fans, please help me. I need learning material on topic I'm curently working on. I would like to receive links and references to articles on market for specialized professional education and education of educators. I'd like to see short articles analyzing the effect of added competition suffered by educator from his students on the job market.

Brett Bellmore

The problem, again, Rob, is that the presumption that "doping" is bad for your health was established back when it was a very crude technology. It's not at all clear that today's doping really does have long term negative health effects. We may even be getting into a situation where athletes who "dope" will have better long term health prospects.

But regulations don't tend to go away when their justification becomes obsolete. They just get different justifications.

Terry Bennett

Maybe it’s not a law issue at all. Maybe it’s a matter of corporate policy.

The way I see the Constitution, individuals start with blanket liberty and cede certain specific freedoms to the collective; in consideration, we receive a measure of social stability.

Personally, I have never used any drugs, including alcohol. (That’s NEVER.) I don’t even take aspirin. This is not because of any law, but simply because I do not see the practice as intelligent. At the same time, I do not see anything in the Constitution that says I have ceded authority over this particular exercise of my freedom, were I to so choose. There are typically socially negative consequences surrounding the use of drugs, but not all individuals who illegally use drugs go on to cause social problems other than those artificial problems (e.g., the funding of drug dealers) which stem from the prohibition itself. The problems are not tautologically bound to the drug use itself - unless you want to count the direct health effects, in which case we are obligated to outlaw beer, meat, and my own personal El Guapo: sugar. Perhaps regulation is called for to protect others from the consequences which we have observed to commonly follow an individual’s drug use – crime by that individual, dependence on welfare, and so on – but if a person is not likely to inflict these problems on others and wishes to exercise his or her freedom by shooting grass or whatever they do, I say knock yourself out. Perhaps we will see a new business develop, the opium den, which will offer an environment producing bi-directional safety for individuals who wish to so indulge themselves, without endangering others while in their impaired state.

As to sports, the ban caters to a social notion of fair play, which while far more pervasive at the time professional sports leagues were coming into existence still holds enough sway today to compel the cartel to provide their entertainment product within this socially palatable context. Many people who watch sports also play or played. There is an affinity between the participant and the spectator, which goads the spectator to buy a ticket, and cheating however we define it weakens that affinity. Human beings used to watch gladiators kill each other. In Mexico City and Barcelona they still while away their afternoons with ritual sadistic voyeurism, watching “men” torture animals to death. Americans by and large are sufficiently grounded, to our credit, that at the end of the day we can say it’s only a game and go home without murdering referees or poorly performing players. Along the same lines, part of what spectatorship provides is the chance to think, “I could do that.” Fathers similarly think, “My son could do that.” Young people watch sports and are inspired by the possibilities. If the leagues changed their offerings to allow steroids, this inspiration and the ticket sales it engenders would be drastically tempered, i.e., “I could do that someday, if I am willing to commit to forego any meaningful contribution to, and participation in, civilization in its larger sense, and die of brain cancer at age 37.” Even older Americans who have no such aspirations would probably find it distasteful to watch a human being sell his or her soul in such triviality.

In an unregulated world, perhaps what we would see at this societal juncture would be the emergence of a minority competitor, Xtreme Baseball, permitting or even encouraging doping, and catering to the entertainment mores of nihilistic 30-year-olds, or at least those who have managed to live this long.

Steve Sailer

Just one minor historical point about Babe Ruth who is often portrayed as completely debauched.

After his disastrous 1925 season, Babe Ruth became one of the very first baseball players to hire a personal trainer and work out in the gym during the winter off-season. His new-found regard for his health and fitness accounts for the impressive statistics of the last decade of his career, including his famous 60 homer season at age 32 in 1927.

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