Samuel Bowles is one of the frontier thinkers about cooperation and pry rights in the long sweep of history. An economist who teaches at the University of Siena and heads the Behavioral Sciences Program at the Santa Fe Institute, Bowles is that rare economist who regards property rights as a fluid concept – something that depends a great deal upon the context, culture and values of a given community of people.
I recently caught up with a lecture that Bowles gave at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society on what he calls “Kudunomics.” It’s a wonderful presentation.
Kudu? A kudu is a species of antelope that hunters in the Pleistocene era used to hunt. Bowles makes a fascinating comparison between the property rights of subsistence economies that once hunted kudu, and what he calls the “weightless economy” of digital information today. Here’s Bowles’ analysis:
Millennia ago, a band of hunters in Africa might bag a kudu once a month, and be rewarded with about 160,000 edible calories of highly perishable meat. When thinking about an economy based on kudu, several significant things stand out: Kudu are quite difficult to acquire (it takes a village to hunt an animal); difficult to own privately (it’s a wild animal); and wasteful if not immediately shared (there was no refrigeration, and so the kudu would spoil unless shared among many people).
In such an economy, the culture rewards generosity toward others and a modesty about one’s personal talents in hunting. It’s a group thing. Self-aggrandizement is bad form. No one can snare a kudu by themselves, and no one can individually consume one. It makes perfect sense for an economy reliant on kudu to share and have minimal or no property rights.