Arbitrating Arbitrariness

MACBETH: If chance will have me king, why, chance may crown me,
Without my stir.
The Tragedy of Macbeth.



Justice Antonin Scalia died this past week, and while his judicial opinions will be alternately celebrated and denounced according to political sensibilities, Scalia is perhaps known to golfers best for his dissent in the case of PGA Tour, Inc. v. Martin, the case that pitted Casey Martin, Stanford teammate of Tiger Woods and victim of a birth defect in his right leg, against the Tour over whether Martin could use a golf cart while playing tournaments. Excepting the fact that Casey Martin is and always has been an extremely polite individual, the case embodied the “snobs vs. slobs” trope that has motivated nearly every golf story for the mass market at least since the premiere of Caddyshack, and Justice Scalia did not disappoint from that angle; in a performance reminiscent of Judge Smails recollecting to the Danny character how, while he had not wished to sentence “boys younger than you to the gas chamber,” he felt he “owed it to them,” Scalia pours a rain of sarcasm on the majority of the court (who sided with Martin). Yet, while Scalia’s opinion is entertaining, what is perhaps most interesting about it from an intellectual perspective is that in his dissent Scalia lays out a theory of games that’s about as “postmodern” as that from any Continental philosopher or theory-addled Brown semiotician: “in all games,” Scalia wrote, the rules are “entirely arbitrary”—an assertion hardly distinguishable from hero-of-the-poststructuralist left Ferdinand de Saussure’s claim, about language itself, that “the link between signal and signification is arbitrary.” But are these claims about arbitrariness true? And what does it mean that in this connection Scalia appears hardly discernable from some of the more outré claims of the contemporary humanistic academy? I’d suggest that there is indeed a subterranean connection between the two—a connection that may in turn explain just how it is that Bill James, the scholar of baseball, is working for the Boston Red Sox and not, say, the University of Missouri.

James, after all, is perhaps best-known in baseball circles—aside from being the man who nearly singlehandedly brought Enlightenment principles to sport—for inventing what’s become known as “Pythagorean expectation”: it’s a formula by which a given team’s win and loss record can be accurately forecasted by examining the runs the team scores versus the runs the team allows. (It’s called “Pythagorean” because of the formula’s superficial similarity to Pythagora’s famous theorem.) By combing through the records, baseball scholars have found that win-loss records generally do mirror the difference between the runs they score and the runs they allow, and also that teams that differ greatly in terms of their expectation can be shown to have benefitted (or been harmed) by some sort of chanciness: like, for instance, the 1974 San Diego Padres, who had a phenomenal record of 31-16 in one-run games while going 29-86 in all the other games.

Hence, as Baseball Reference points out, “while winning as many games as possible is still the ultimate goal of a baseball team, a team’s run differential … provides a better idea of how well a team is actually playing.” Pythagorean Expectation, in short, is a way of eliminating arbitrariness from a team’s record by taking what could be called a more-granular view: rather than viewing a team from the skybox level of a team’s record, it’s better to look at the record from the basepath-level—how well or poorly a team does at the game’s essential act of scoring or preventing runs.

To Scalia, however, it seems that there is no such thing as an act “essential” to a given game: “since it is the very nature of a game to have no object except amusement,” the justice wrote in Martin, “it is quite impossible to say that any of a game’s arbitrary rules is ‘essential.’” Similarly, postmodern intellectuals like to claim, as literary critic Jonathan Culler has, that “there is no natural or inevitable link between the signifier and the signified.” Such arguments take off from de Saussure’s work on language a century ago, by which the Swiss linguist was led to argue that, for instance, “There is no internal connection, for example, between the idea ‘sister’ and the French sequence of sounds s—ö—r which acts as its signal.” In that sense, literary intellectuals often like to speak, as philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein did, of “language games”: in this way, as has been said, the “rules of language are analogous to the rules of games; thus saying something in a language is analogous to making a move in a game.” Conversely then, no one “sign” can be considered to be “essential” to a language, just as no one act can be considered to be essential to a game. In that sense, it seems that while Scalia and hyper-left-wing scholars of the humanities were political opponents in many different arenas, they can usefully be said to oppose James’ notion that, in fact, there are essential acts that are definitional to a game—and that those acts can be used to determine value.

In that way, then, contemporary literary intellectuals and Scalia can be said to be united in their opposition to a position first enunciated a long time before Bill James ever walked the earth—a position with far more political import than the game of golf. So far as I know, that principle was first announced by the German philosopher, theologian, jurist, and astronomer, Nicholas of Cusa in the fifteenth century in his work, De concordatia catholica (or, The Catholic Concordance). “It is, Nicholas wrote there, “a general principle that the greater the agreement to a proposal, the more reason there is to think it correct and divinely inspired.” Or, as the Marquis de Condorcet would put it similarly some centuries later in his Essay on the Application of Analysis to the Probability of Majority Decisions: “If … each voter is more likely to vote correctly … then adding more voters increases the probability that the majority decision is correct.” In other words, what these learned Europeans were arguing centuries before Bill James is that by looking at the acts of scoring—in this case, voting—that are essential to the game of elections, it is possible to find real value, and not simply mirages.

Today, arguments like Scalia’s in the Martin case or the arguments of postmodern literary intellectuals can be found advanced by, for instance, Hillary Clinton’s campaign when her supporters sometimes say—as they do—that the supporters of her opponent Bernie Sanders should know that, while Sanders nearly tied Clinton in Iowa (and just how nearly is under dispute, because the Iowa Democratic Party refuses to release the actual vote totals) and outright won New Hampshire, still those figures should be overlooked because Clinton has an overwhelming lead in what are known as “superdelegates”: delegates of the party who will attend this summer’s national convention and vote on a nominee, but were unelected within their state’s primary process. Such arguments like to point out that, while Sanders possesses a 36-32 lead among elected delegates thus far, Clinton is crushing Sanders by 362-8 among party insiders. The link between the party’s nominee and the primary process, these Clinton arguments suggest, is arbitrary—thusly, that Sanders’ supporters should give up their insurgency and, so to speak, return to the Clinton fold.

As can be seen, then, the arguments of “arbitrariness” are not particular to a certain political bent, but are instead markers of a certain kind of social position: fans of Hillary Clinton are in sum  likely to share these assumptions with fans of Antonin Scalia. It’s not arbitrary, in other words, that the only demographic group Clinton won in New Hampshire were those making over $200,000 per year. Both fans of Scalia and fans of Clinton are likely to reject Nicholas of Cusa’s and the Marquis de Condorcet’s assertion that value can be found in the opinion of the majority. Which, one supposes, is an opinion they are entitled to have. What’s perhaps surprising, however, is to suppose that the majority of Americans—golf fans or not—should ever agree to it.


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