Wednesday, May 26, 2010

imagining what???

I wonder how many historians would, or have, had heart attacks after hearing that Sam Bowles thinks we can find answers concerning the contours of the next property rights regime by running agent-based evolutionary models of private property revolutions backward. Here's a link to the talk:

To briefly summarize, Sam finds a parallel between hunter-gatherer societies of the distant past and intellectual property economies of the 21st century. In both societies, a "big kill" (either a Kudu or a new software idea, for example) is characterized by high fixed costs and extremely low marginal costs and where the social pressures to share in the wealth are great. Sam has worked for over a decade now on showing how such hunter-gatherer societies died out and were replaced by domesticated farming, replaced by the private property regime, about 10,000 years ago if I recall his previous work correctly. He now thinks we are seeing a phasing back to the ancient model as creative commons and other open-source projects as well as a more knowledge-based economy gain prominence.

This is not intended to be a criticism, only to recognize the great significance of such an undertaking. However, I do wonder whether Bowles, in following this approach, is making some implicit assumptions about evolution and history that are not supported by the evidence. Taking a more modern view of property rights development -- that of the evolution of capitalism -- one has to question whether such a process can simply be undone. In Bowles' model, new property rights regimes arise due to competition within "firms" among different property rights models, where the efficiency or "evolutionary fitness" of different groups will determine outcomes. It's a symmetric setup because competition can be rerun countless times. This is not an explanatory model of capitalism that I've ever heard of, unless I'm missing something in translation (between the biological and economic history lingo). In fact, it seems more like an economic model of perfect competition, where the timeless nature of equilibrium knows no distinction between forward and reverse.

It just strikes me as very strange that Sam is taking this approach, since he is obviously quite familiar with the asymmetries inherent in relationships defined by economic power. And if economic power drives history... well?

What am I missing? Any thoughts?


  1. I just came across this blog as a link from Robert Vienneau's blog -- your writing looks groovy! I must admit to being a fan of much of Bowles' work (what I understand of it so far)! Perhaps he is hinting that the edifice of corporate capitalism is not as impregnable as it likes to make itself appear...

  2. Hey Chris :) thanks for the compliment. Surely dispelling the view that corporate capitalism is "here to stay" is progressive enough. But Sam is by no means ignorant of the political implications of his research. Here is a gated version of a paper he wrote in 1974 titled "Economists as Servants of Power". It would be good for both mainstream and out-of-mainstream economists to consider the arguments made in that paper.

  3. Wow, sorry about that! I just realized I never provided a link to the gated paper: