The Best Policy

Government and Volleyball

More evidence that Newt’s got sand on the brain.

A mere 40 years ago, beach volleyball was just beginning. Now it is not only a sport [but] in the Olympics. … And there’s a whole new world of opportunity opening up that didn’t even exist 30 years ago or 40 years ago, and no bureaucrat would have invented it. And that’s what freedom is all about.

–House Speaker Newt Gingrich, addressing the Republican Convention.

Not much has changed over the last 40 years on the small island off the coast of Maine where I have vacationed most summers of my life. A few things have been lost–the inn burned down (though few outside the insurance company mourned its loss), as did the little grocery store (much mourned when the milk supply runs low and the harbor lies a foggy three miles distant)–but not much has been added. The farmhouse, the shingled cottages, the library, and the chapel seem as immutable, in their slightly shabby Wyethian perfection, as the sea that sparkles behind them.

Yet this year there was something new: a beach-volleyball net. It stands firmly moored on the white sand beach that lies a few yards to the west of my sister’s cottage and fewer than a hundred yards from my own. I’ll admit that when I first spotted the net, I failed to grasp its symbolic importance. I thought it was something of an eyesore. Only later, with the benefit of Speaker Newt Gingrich’s GOP Convention instruction (see above), did I come to realize that what we had here was no less than the fulsome gift from a mature Freedom to the island’s youth. Sure, it sags a bit by Olympic standards, but it stands, nevertheless, as a symbol of what the human spirit can achieve when free from the oppression of Big Government.

Of course, the volleyball net didn’t just wash in with the tide. The tiny island government that decides such things voted money to sink the concrete pilings that support the net’s posts and to purchase the needed equipment. And the Ladies Improvement Association provided personpower for the erection effort. But these are small bureaucracies, more akin to the voluntary associations that fall on the positive side of the GOP’s freedom/slavery divide. Still I wonder: Even if larger governments, like, for example, San Diego’s, don’t actually put up the nets, surely they regulate their placement on beaches and other public places.

Now I don’t doubt for a moment that if you put a group of bureaucrats around a conference table, the chances of them coming up with sensible rules for beach volleyball, much less the seminal concept, are zilch. More likely they would invent a bunch of rules for keeping the players from spraining their ankles or getting their toes cut by pieces of glass hidden in the sand or contracting tetanus from rusty nails stuck in driftwood. Actually, you know, there are rules sort of like that. My sister, who is something of an amateur expert on beaches, tells me, for example, that pursuant to Maine’s Natural Resources Protection Act (Coastal Sand Dune Rules, Chapter 355), the state government sets standards for beach cleaning–though more with an eye to protecting the beaches than the beach-going public. Some might think that these rules, whether aimed at pristine dunes or uncut feet, also advance the cause of beach volleyball.

It occurs to me further that the beach itself might not have been able to accommodate this monument to freedom were it not for the fact that, a few years back, my sister took it upon herself to consult some experts, among them actual bureaucrats, about the erosion that then threatened it. These experts, notable among them Stephen M. Dickson of the Maine Department of Conservation and L. Kenneth Fink of the Darling Marine Center in Walpole, Maine, quickly fingered the culprit: the concrete sidewalk, erected some 75 years ago by an island benefactor–one Mr. Stanley of Steamer fame.

The sidewalk, they counseled, caused the sea to erode, rather than build, the important dune that, with its beach grass and surrounding “berm colonizers,” protects the beach and the north end of the island. And so the sidewalk went and the dune swells with each passing year and the beach grass slithers in the wind. Beach-volleyball fans everywhere should surely rejoice at the collective action that, at the cost of some individual freedom, to be sure (mine, for example, as, with sand-filled shoes, I struggle to navigate my grocery-laden cart along the dirt track that is now the only access to my cottage), has preserved another venue for their sport.

Come to think of it, it’s just possible that no sport benefits more from bureaucrats than beach volleyball. To begin with, if governments at every level hadn’t intervened, beaches everywhere might have been incorporated by the wealthy into Gatsbyesque estates, like those that denied most of the North Shore of Long Island to hoi polloi. All four finalists in the recent Olympic men’s beach-volleyball championship (as well as two members of America’s other top-ranked men’s team and two from the most successful U.S. women’s team) grew up playing on California’s spectacular public beaches. And while the more aggressive types of beach maintenance activity have fallen into disfavor among coastal geologists in recent years, those beaches, like the East Coast’s, have been the recipients of billions in taxpayers’ dollars spent collectively by local, state, and federal bureaucracies, from the Squirrel Island Village Corp. to the Army Corps of Engineers.

Nor does government support for beach volleyball stop at dune’s end. All six of America’s top-ranking male players got their higher education thanks to the splendid network of colleges and universities that their home state maintains. While in college, they honed their skills playing regular volleyball–not a sport that pays its own way on campus. And though today’s top-ranking players earn six-figure incomes from their prizes and commercial endorsements, many of the great players of tomorrow may even now be benefiting from government’s biggest covert subsidy of sports and the arts–unemployment insurance (and perhaps the occasional food stamp).

So let me draw a slightly different moral from the saga of beach volleyball as it has evolved in our times: If, as Speaker Gingrich says, the price of volleyball is eternal freedom, still it may take a village to raise a volleyball net.