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Baseball, Steroids, and a Free Society

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Even non-baseball fans like me couldn’t help but notice that right in the middle of Barry Bonds’ perjury trial Manny Ramirez abruptly retired rather than face a 100-game suspension for violating Major League Baseball’s drug policy — for the second time.

Former Pittsburgh Pirates and San Francisco Giants outfielder and fourteen-time All-Star Bonds was charged with three counts of making false statements to a grand jury and one count of obstruction of justice. Although he was indicted in 2007, his trial did not begin until recently, on March 21, 2011. Bonds’ legal troubles stem from his 2003 grand-jury testimony in a scandal involving the supplying of steroids to athletes. Bonds allegedly lied under oath about his alleged use of steroids. On April 13, after the federal government spent tens of millions of dollars, Bonds was found guilty of obstructing justice, but the jury failed to reach a verdict on the other counts.

Tampa Bay Rays slugger Ramirez faced a 100-game suspension after testing positive for a performance-enhancing drug during spring training. He previously served a 50-game suspension for violating the League’s drug policy in 2009 while he was playing with the Los Angeles Dodgers. The penalty for a second violation is double the first penalty.

Major League Baseball has prohibited the possession, sale, or use of illegal drugs and controlled substances since 1991. Formal drug testing was instituted in 2004. Twelve players on major-league rosters were suspended for ten days each in 2005 after testing positive for prohibited substances. Under tougher rules in force because of the new Joint Drug Prevention and Treatment Program in 2006, three players received a fifty-game suspension. Seven players received a variety of suspensions in 2007. One player in 2008 and two players in 2009 and 2010 received fifty-game suspensions.

An all-day, nationally televised congressional hearing was held by the House Government Reform Committee on March 17, 2005, on steroid use in baseball and Major League Baseball’s drug policy. Said Rep. Henry Waxman (D–CA) in an interview a few days before the hearing: “Kids are dying from the use of steroids. They’re looking up to these major-league leaders in terms of the enhancements that they’re using. And we have to stop it.”

In 2006, after pressure from several influential members of Congress, former U.S. Senator George Mitchell was appointed by Commissioner of Baseball Bud Selig to investigate drug use in baseball. On December 13, 2007, Mitchell issued his 409-page Report to the Commissioner of Baseball of an Independent Investigation into the Illegal Use of Steroids and Other Performance Enhancing Substances by Players in Major League Baseball (The Mitchell Report). The report named eighty-nine baseball players who allegedly used illegal performance-enhancing drugs.

On January 15, 2008, the same House committee as in 2005, but now called the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, held another hearing to discuss the findings in the Mitchell Report and assess Major League Baseball’s progress in combating the use of performance-enhancing drugs by its players. Another hearing was held on February 13.

Statists on the left and the right generally support both Major League Baseball’s drug policy and the federal war on drugs. Libertarians, however, are ambivalent on the former and oppose the latter.

The federal war on drugs is undefendable. Not only has it failed to curtail drug use, it has eroded civil liberties, destroyed financial privacy, corrupted law enforcement, crowded prisons with non-violent offenders, ruined countless lives, and wasted hundreds of billons of taxpayer dollars.

Nowhere does the Constitution grant the federal government the power to prohibit, regulate, restrict, control, license, monitor, or otherwise concern itself with any substance— including those deemed harmful or mood-altering — that any American — including professional athletes and other role models — desires to inject, swallow, sniff or otherwise ingest into his body. This means that congressional committees to investigate drug use are, like the war on drugs itself, in violation of the Constitution.

It doesn’t matter how potent or how harmful a particular drug might be. It doesn’t matter if it is immoral to get high or use steroids. It doesn’t matter — however tragic it might be — that you had a family member or friend who died from a drug overdose. It doesn’t matter if using drugs is a vice or a sin. It still doesn’t change the fact that the federal government has no authority to ban any substance or intrude into the personal lives of Americans.

Libertarians don’t stop with the Constitution, of course. The war on drugs is a war on individual liberty, personal responsibility, private property, limited government, and a free society.

This doesn’t mean that libertarians support drug use, condone drug use, or encourage drug use. This doesn’t mean that libertarians don’t recognize the potentially harmful effects of ingesting drugs — legal or illegal, mood-altering or performance-enhancing, prescription or over-the-counter, medicinal or therapeutic. It simply means that we believe in a free society and the proper role of government. It is families, friends, counselors, and churches that should be advising individuals on the decision to use or not to use drugs, and it is physicians, psychologists, and drug treatment centers that should be dealing with the problems of drug abuse — not some paternalistic nanny state.

But none of this means that libertarians think baseball players should have the absolute right to choose to use steroids, human-growth hormones, supplements, or other performance-enhancing drugs independently of their employers’ rules and regulations. Major League Baseball — and any other private organization — should have the freedom to set or not to set its own drug-use policies. In the case of baseball, this might range from a policy of actually supplying to players performance-enhancing drugs of various kinds to a draconian zero-tolerance policy that bans permanently from baseball any player caught using any drug deemed off-limits by the baseball commissioner to the much more likely scenario of something in between.

In a free society, Major League Baseball would make its own drug policy with or without input from the team owners, the fans, the players, or the players’ union. The government wouldn’t be involved in any way. Team owners who didn’t like the policy could lobby and cooperate to change it or form their own league. Fans that didn’t like it could stay home from the ballpark. Players that didn’t like it could quit. If the players’ union didn’t like it, then it could try to persuade the players to strike. Drug policy could also be left up to each individual team. But again, the government wouldn’t be involved in any way.

There are other misconceptions about the libertarian case for drug freedom as well. In a libertarian society; that is, a free society, drugs would be legal but employers would have the right to prohibit specific drugs or all drugs from being in the pockets, lockers, and bodies of their employees. Employee drug testing might be scheduled, random, or non-existent. This is because any property owner would have the right to control what takes place on his property as he sees fit, including prescribing, proscribing, or permitting whatever persons or substances he chooses without the government being involved in any way.

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