Human nature and property rights


Jason Collins


September 27, 2011

While the Cato Unbound discussion on Brain, Belief and Politics appears to have petered out (unfortunately, Shermer has not directly confronted most of the issues in the response essays), the site has linked to an interesting piece (pdf) by Will Wilkinson from the Cato Policy Report in 2005.

In the article, Wilkinson addresses the link between capitalism and human nature. On property rights, he states:

Property rights are prefigured in nature by the way animals mark out territories for their exclusive use in foraging, hunting, and mating. Recognition of such rudimentary claims to control and exclude minimizes costly conflict, which by itself provides a strong evolutionary reason to look for innate tendencies to recognize and respect norms of property.

New scientific research provides even stronger evidence for the existence of such property “instincts.” For example, recent experimental work by Oliver Goodenough, a legal theorist, and Christine Prehn, a neuroscientist, suggests that the human mind evolved specialized modules for making judgments about moral transgressions, and transgressions against property in particular. Evolutionary psychology can help us to understand that property rights are not created simply by strokes of the legislator’s pen.

From the comments on my recent post on human nature and libertarianism, property rights and the ability to accumulate massive amounts of property underlie many concerns about a libertarian state. Wilkinson notes that the human mind is ill-equipped to deal with it:

Perhaps the most depressing lesson of evolutionary psychology for politics is found in its account of the deep-seated human capacity for envy and of our related difficulty in understanding the idea of gains from trade and increases in productivity— the idea of an ever-expanding “pie” of wealth.

… The EEA [Environment of Evolutionary Adaptedness] was for the most part a zero-sum world, where increases in total wealth through invention, investment, and extended economic exchange were totally unknown. More for you was less for me. Therefore, if anyone managed to acquire a great deal more than anyone else, that was pretty good evidence that his was a stash of ill-gotten gains, acquired by cheating, stealing, raw force, or, at best, sheer luck. Envy of the disproportionately wealthy may have helped to reinforce generally adaptive norms of sharing and to help those of lower status on the dominance hierarchy guard against further predation by those able to amass power.

Our zero-sum mentality makes it hard for us to understand how trade, innovation, and investment can increase the amount of total wealth. We are thus ill-equipped to easily understand our own economic system.

While we may historically have pulled down the rich, the immediate assumption underlying the desire to pull them down no longer holds.