Samuel Bowles, Jung-Kyoo Choi

Paper #: 02-11-061

The eclipse of collectivist institutions by more individual-based systems is a recurring historical episode, as occurred with the enclosure of common land in 18th century England (Allen, 1992) and the triumph of individual-cum-state-based systems of contract enforcement over collectivist approaches in early modern Europe and the Mediterranean region (Greif, 1994, 2002). We seek to illuminate an earlier instance, the emergence of individual property rights and the displacement of the collectivist and egalitarian social structures typical of mobile foraging bands that typified early human social structure during the 30,000 or more years prior to the development of agriculture beginning around 11,000 years ago. With the domestication of plants and animals, individual claims on property became more extensive, particularly in land, livestock and their products. Drawing on the existing archeological, ethnographic and other evidence, we present a cultural group-selection model and agent-based simulation of this process. Our simulations suggest that the very long term persistence of the collectivist hunter-gatherer social order could have been sustained by frequent intergroup conflict, significant levels of conformist cultural transmission and second-order punishment (of those who did not punish norm transgressors). We also find that individual property rights provided a better system of coordination among members of groups only after the ambiguity of possession endemic to the hunter-gatherer economy was attenuated with the domestication of crops and livestock. Thus it was by clarifying possession that the advent of agriculture may have permitted what we call the first property rights revolution.