Imagine you are watching a baseball game. Part of the game involves, in certain situations, runners headed to home plate barging into the catcher defending the plate at full speed. This is done across baseball, not just in the game you are watching. However, like in the game you are watching, some collisions result in serious injuries for the player(s) involved: concussions, broken legs or hands, and the like. Despite the injury risk, these plays are legal.
What can be done to minimize the risk of serious injury? It’s true that such injuries tend to be caused by larger players, but smaller players cause injuries, too. Would simply swapping out large players for smaller players in this situation change the outcome? Not likely, at least not in any significant sense. In fact, the incentive system is lined up against such a move: in the result of a home plate collision and the catcher drops the ball, the offensive team scores a run. That’s a pretty powerful incentive.
What if the players of the game (the League, owners, and players) decide to change the rules of the game to make such collisions illegal? That would have a far greater effect, wouldn’t it? By switching the incentive from a positive consequence (a collision could lead to a score) to a negative consequence (a collision could lead to an ejection), it alters the behavior of the players.
The rules of the game are important in determining the outcome. Given poor rules, simply switching the players (participants) around won’t matter. The flawed incentive system will continue to produce undesirable outcomes (like the injuries in the above example). This is true regardless of the situation: economics, politics, baseball, driving, film-making, etc ad nauseum.
I’d like to end this post with a quote from the great Nobel economist Jim Buchanan and co-author Geoffrey Brennan (emphasis added):
We must redesign our rules,and our thinking about rules, with the ultimate aim of limiting the harm that governments can do, while preserving the range of beneficial governmental-collective activities. We plead with our fellow academicians to cease their proffering of advice to this or that government or politician in office. Good games depend on good rules more than they depend on good players. Fortunately for us all, and provided that we understand the reason of rules in the first place, it is always easier to secure agreement on a set of rules than to secure agreement on who is or is not our favorite player.
-The Reason of Rules: Constitutional Political Economy, pg 167.
PS, the above baseball example is from real life.