Warning: This post wanders all over the place, from baseball to gasoline prices to star naming to Internet search engines and back to baseball.
Today I was listening to sports-talk radio for a while, and the topic of conversation was "Should major league baseball nullify (or asterisk) Barry Bond's home run records because he is strongly suspected to have taken steroids." Now personally, I don't believe anyone has broken Roger Marris's single season home run record who was not taking steroids. How much that bothers me depends on what day of the week you ask me, but my answer to the record book question never varies: no, the MLB doesn't have to do a thing. Here's why, though get ready for a digression.
Perhaps the toughest libertarian-capitalist concept for most people to grasp, even tougher than the idea that wealth is not zero-sum, is that of emergent or bottom-up order. Capitalism is all about order emerging bottom-up: Market prices emerge without any one person setting them from above; supply matches demand without any central body coordinating production. For many people, this process is some sort of black magic not to be trusted -- just observe Congress and their silly proposals on gasoline prices, reminding us of savages who don't understand how nature works performing elaborate rituals to make the crops grow.
In fact, this whole issue of emergent order vs. grand design is actually a point of incredible inconsistency in American politics. Observe certain liberals, strong secularists who reject the concepts of God and intelligent design in favor of evolution and bottom-up emergent order in the natural world, but then in turn reject emergent order in human relations and economics in favor of top-down not-so-intelligent design as run by the federal government. You have only to remember back to Katrina to see the public demand for, followed by the spectacular failure of, top down relief approaches.
The other day I had an argument with a friend about one of those commercial star registries -- you have probably heard the commercial-- pay $X and have a star named after someone you love. My friend was appalled. He said - "do you know that they have no authority to name those stars. Don't people know its not official. They just put your name in a book somewhere - but its not the official book in Switzerland (or wherever the hell he said it was)." My reaction was -- so what? Who had the right to call the other one "official"? The standard star naming by scientists is accepted because it is useful. But that doesn't mean I can't come up with my own naming system. Let's see, I think I am going to rename the Orion constellation as "Warren". Yes that's much better. Now, its unlikely anyone else will find a useful reason to adopt this same convention.... The fact is that the star names we use represent a consensus that has emerged over time. In many cases, constellations and stars had competing names (e.g. Big Bear vs. Big Dipper) that still have not been fully reconciled.
Or here is an example that might work better for modern Internet users. The Internet does have an official central body that sets addressing conventions. They set up the rules by which I can lease the rights to www.coyoteblog.com and the 12-digit IP address that is attached to it. This is the "official" way to address the web.
But early on, as web sites proliferated, entrepreneurs attempted to impose their own order on the Internet, sort-of the equivalent of suggesting an entirely new set of names for stars. Yahoo and AOL both developed huge hierarchical directories, effectively imposing a nested-tree addressing system over the Internet's flat addresses. And for a while, these approaches prospered, as users found these to be a more useful way to organize the Internet. Then, along came search engines, like Altavista and then Google, and yet a new organizational paradigm was proposed, in effect a third different set of names for the Internet constellations. Again, users found this keyword and link-popularity approach superior to hierarchical trees, and search engines have prospered while the old directories have languished.
The point is, no one gave Google a license or top-down authority to reorganize the Internet. They just did it, like thousands of others tried at the time. Of these thousands of different approaches, no single smart man picked Google as the approach that everyone should use. Rather, individuals tried all these different approaches, and over time a consensus emerged that Google was the most useful.
Which -- and I know you thought I forgot -- brings us back to Barry Bond's records. Individual baseball records don't actually have any meaning to the game of baseball itself -- baseball is played for team wins and losses and ultimately for team championships. So while individual hits and home runs may have mattered in getting to a champion, the fact that Barry Bonds hit 73 home runs in a year has no real meaning within the context of declaring a team as champion. It has meaning only in the way that fans react to it.
One proof of this is the fact that people focus so much on the single-season home run record. Is this record more inherently valuable than say, the single season triple record? Triples are actually harder to hit, so you might argue that the triple record is more interesting. No one from official MLB offices ever declared the single season home run record to be among the most important. But over time, a fan consensus has emerged that people are far more intrigued by the home run record, so most everyone can name Barry Bonds at 73 home runs but only a geek would know Chief Wilson at 36 triples.
I contend that Barry Bond's 73 home run record (and his lifetime home run record, if he ever gets that) will take care of themselves without any action from the league office. Over time, fans will decide for themselves if Bond's 73 is better than Marris's 61. Today, for example, most discussion of pitching records excludes the period before 1915 or so, which people refer to as the "dead ball" era. Someday, fan consensus will emerge that they are OK with steroid-driven records (as they have become comfortable with Gaylord Perry's records despite his use of the illegal spitball) or else they are not OK and batting stats from the past decade will be excluded as the "juiced player era".