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.
Many of these norms started to change 8,000 years ago with the rise of private property, noted Bowles, especially with the domestication of animals. When there is a cow or sheep that can be owned by an individual, the idea of private property rights suddenly make more sense. One can feasibly own a cow and fence the land that the cow grazes on. In the long sweep of history, then, the idea of private property rights is fairly recent.
So what does a hunting economy have to say about our times?
Bowles proposes that the Internet has created all sorts of digital resources that are as fugitive and difficult to own as wild game on the hoof. No one can really make a software program all by themselves (it takes a lot of people to make one), and it is difficult to own software privately (because it is so easily copied and therefore very expensive to “fence in” as private property).
Software is wild and fugitive in its own way. There are high costs in creating the first copy of something digital, but then very low to zero marginal costs for each copy. An owner can enforce a higher, artificial price for the good by using the power of the state to enforce copyrights or patents. But this, of course, but that prevents goods from being sold at the marginal cost, which violates the fundamental principle of the Invisible Hand, that the aggregate public benefit comes from acquiring goods at the incremental marginal cost under conditions of competition. While software programs and other digital resources may not be as perishable as kudu, the aggregate “social welfare” benefits are surely greater from sharing them than from locking them up for private use only at artificial (monopoly) prices.
The question for our time, Bowles proposed: “Is software application more like a kudu or a cow?” Meaning, can software really be practically owned, like a cow? Or does it just make more sense for it to be shared, like a kudu?
Bowles speculates that technological advances (such as software and other digital innovations) and new types of “between-group competition” can over time make new types of property rights regimes more attractive. Strict private property rights may not make as much sense if software and social networking websites and other online information resources resembles kudu.
One way to test these ideas, Bowles has found, is through agent-based computer simulations that amount to “artificial histories” based on different experimental parameters. One such set of experiments divides communities up into sub-groups of “bourgeois” individuals, who defend what they own and try to acquire things for their private use; “sharers,” who share their resources with everyone; and “civic” individuals, who share with sharers, but punish those who don’t share. Bowles can also set certain baseline conditions such as the size of groups and the degree of competition among them. (You can download the program and run it yourself by clicking here.)
So what sorts of governance systems emerge in the simulations?
Bowles found that if property rights are well defined, then the “bourgeois” faction will prevail and become an “evolutionary stable strategy,” meaning it will resists displacement by other approaches. Moreover, the winning group (of bourgeois individuals) will then provide the cultural model that losing agents will emulate. However, if property rights become ambiguous – perhaps because new technologies make them more problematic – then the “civics” can feasibly ally with the “sharers” to become the default equilibrium strategy.
Based on his simulations, Bowles found that communities can handle ambiguities of property rights more readily than state- and market-based systems, but they tend not to prevail when there are already inequalities among people. Interestingly, the digital economy creates both – substantial ambiguity and contestability about property rights (think digital music, film and text), but also high levels of inequality (because in networked economies, dominant players enjoy strong feedback loops and benefit from winner-take-all dynamics).
Bowles and his colleague Herbert Gintis have published a new book, A Cooperative Species: Human Reciprocity and Its Evolution. I haven’t finished reading it yet, but it deals with many of these issues in much greater depth than his lecture. I’ll check in with a post on the book soon, but in the meantime, the Bowles’ lecture is worth a look.