“The First Property Rights Revolution,” S. Bowles and J-K. Choi (2002)

To my mind, history has just two events and a bunch of minor details, the two events being the development of sedentary agriculture and the Industrial Revolution. Sam Bowles and a former grad student of his attempt to model the shift from hunter-gatherer to farmer using evolutionary game theory. They consider a variant of Hawk-Dove where players have one of three strategies: share everything, grab everything (if you can), or share and collectively punish any grabber. They show that a hunter-gatherer society without grabbers (the Rousseau equilibrium) is not evolutionarily stable. However, if you allow for biased cultural transmission (if A is the dominant meme in a society in this period, then A will be even more dominant next period, perhaps because teachers/elders are selected from the dominant meme group) or for warfare (stronger groups can conquer weaker groups, allowing the more successful Sharers to attempt to conquer the less successful Grabbers), then the Rousseau equilibrium is also stable.

In order to generate agriculture, they assume that property is ambiguous in the hunter-gatherer period: how can one know who “owns” an undefined, fenceless, mapless area of hunting ground? They define a new strategy called Bourgeois, which plays Grabber whenever it “owns” some property, and a sharer when it does not. Under complete ambiguity about possession, bourgeois are the same as Grabbers, since it always believes that it owns all property. In an agent-based model, the authors show that the bourgeois strategy becomes dominant as the ambiguity reduces, perhaps because of some technological shock such as climate amelioration after the Ice Age. The model therefore shows why hunter-gatherer sharing may have been stable for many millenia until it was replaced with a property-based society without sharing.

(Side note: I’ve always found Sam Bowles’ career very strange. He was, almost without question, fired from Harvard econ for being a Marxist a few decades ago. Since then, he has taught at places far from the centers of academic econ, such as UMass and Univ. of Siena. He regularly publishes in places like Science and Nature, but rarely in top econ journals. I can’t help but think that Bowles likes being thought of “heterodox”, even though Bowles’ work is no more out of the mainstream than his frequent coauthors Ernst Fehr and Colin Camerer. He could surely have a top academic job and have publications with far more influence among economists if he wanted to. It’s all very odd.)

http://samoa.santafe.edu/media/workingpapers/02-11-061.pdf (WP version – the paper is unpublished)


3 thoughts on ““The First Property Rights Revolution,” S. Bowles and J-K. Choi (2002)

  1. Dan in euroland says:

    If you liked this paper I would recommend Bowles’s book, Microeconomics. It is a really interesting read in applied game theory.

  2. afinetheorem says:

    Indeed it is! I’m more skeptical of experimental evidence and (to a lesser extent) simulation than Bowles, but I love an introductory book that spends more time on growth and institutions than on allocations – certainly the former are much more important to our lives than the latter.

  3. Hugh Sansom says:

    Only just came on this post while googling “property rights revolution”. Largely agreed about Bowles. He and Herbert Gintis were definitely denied tenure at Harbard because of their Marxist thinking. The economics department had strongly supported tenure for them; the university’s administration nixed it. John Kenneth Galbraith wrote about it somewhere, saying that he almost left the school. Wassily Leontief and another who later won the Nobel prize did leave. Bowles and Gintis went on to make UMass Amherst the leading progressive economics department.

    I’d say Bowles’s earlier work shows a far clearer inclination toward genuinely progressive thought. These days, he can even sound conservative (from my perspective), especially when on issues of evolutionary psychology and the evolution of economic behavior.

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