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Bart J. Wilson joins the show to talk about how the concept of property is unique to humans.

Aaron Ross Powell
Director and Editor
Trevor Burrus
Research Fellow, Constitutional Studies

Bart J. Wilson is the Donald P. Kennedy Endowed Chair in Economics and Law at Chapman University. He is a founding member of the Economic Science Institute and founding member and Director of the Smith Institute for Political Economy and Philosophy.


Bart J. Wilson explores how humans acquire, perceive, and know the custom of property, and why this might be relevant to understanding how property works in the twenty‐​first century.

What is experimental economics? How does property work? What chaos ensues when property rights do not exist?

Further Reading:


00:07 Trevor Burrus: Welcome to Free Thoughts. I’m Trevor Burrus.

00:09 Aaron Powell: And I’m Aaron Powell.

00:10 TB: Joining us today is Bart J. Wilson, the Donald P. Kennedy Chair in Economics and Law at Chapman University, and Director of the Smith Institute for Political Economy and Philosophy. His new book is The Property Species: Mine, Yours and the Human Mind. Welcome to Free Thoughts, Professor Wilson.

00:26 Bart Wilson: I’m delighted to be here.

00:29 TB: You’re an experimental economist. So before we talk about some of the games that make up the backbone of your book, can we start by talking about what experimental economics actually is?

00:41 BW: So experimental economics is the laboratory method of inquiry where we build virtual models of the economy in particular, and we ask undergraduates to make decisions on them, and we pay them according to the decisions that they make. So the better decisions they make, the more money they earn, the worse decisions they make, the less money they earn. But it’s up to them what to do within the experiment. And then the science part of it is we can randomly assign people to different treatments and see if those changes are leading to changes in behavior and outcomes for the participants. It’s a way of putting a check on whether or not economics is… Economists have a good idea of what people do in these situations or a bad idea. We go from there.

01:27 TB: Now, I actually had the privilege of participating in one of the games. Actually, probably the one that you write the most about in the book 10 years ago at the Koch Summer Fellow Program when you were teaching that, and it was interesting reading this ’cause my memory of that game was exactly the way you describe it in all these situations. So you have people producing something you talk about and then trying to capture the gains from that production, but can you sketch out a little bit more of how this game works, the red and the blue production game?

02:02 BW: Sure. So we were interested in, originally, seeing how participants would build a market from the ground up. So the kind of foundations, kind of the core experiment in experimental economics is the double auction experiment, where you give the institutional rules to the participants and then they decide how to buy and sell. In this experiment, we wanted to see how they would build that auction mechanism up from the ground themselves, and so they would have an ability to produce things. We had given two items, red and blue up in a field, and then they had a house where they can consume them on the screen. And in the first set of experiments we were interested in, if they discovered this ability to trade would they then specialize and then find all the games in trade that are possible. And so all they could do was decide, would discover on their own, we didn’t tell them, that they can move things to other people for them to have, and then if you could do that mutually, they can make three times as much money.

03:07 BW: And we decided to make one little change after these experiments to see, well, what would happen, just kind of exploring, if we allow them to move things from other people as well as move things to other people. And well, all hell breaks loose, items are flying all over the screen, and people are upset and yelling at each other, and it was quite chaotic. And that was kind of my entrance into trying to understand how property works. And that first set of experiments was filled with lots of poverty, lots of theft all over the place, stable possession really wasn’t the norm. But in a minority of cases, like one out of six, one‐​and‐​a‐​half out of 12 sessions would be able to establish these rules among themselves of who can say, “This is mine.” And it’s in that that I really wanted to explore what is property, how does it work and how can we… What makes it possible for groups of people to settle on those rules of what’s yours and what’s mine?

04:21 AP: A lot of the time, there’s debates about violence in video games. And one of the arguments that gets made about violence in video games not being a problem, not training people to go off and kill each other or be violent, is that conceptually, we understand that a video game, when we sit down to play it, is a very different space from the real world and our behavior in it is essentially role‐​playing some character that we are not in real life. Does that concern… I mean, that’s not a concern, but does that dynamic potentially complicate extracting meaningful information out of, say, asking college students to sit down at a computer and play these games, that they’re kind of acting in a different way in this virtual space than they would at all or for different motives in the real world and so it’s hard to know what sorts of behaviors would carry over or would be meaningful?

05:19 BW: Well, we see the breakdown of the respect for property in the natural world. So when there’s a natural disaster, it seems to break out all over the place, and so having it break out here in the virtual world is an opportunity for us to see, “Well, how do they put it back together again?” And so had… I actually would think it goes the other way. Had we just put these people in this world and everything was calm and peaceful, we really wouldn’t learn anything about property. But the fact is that every session starts out with chaos, and then some of them work their way out of it. That’s an opportunity to figure out, “Well, what is it that these people are doing that allows them to get out of that?” And so that’s the value to me because we can give them different tools, we can change the environment for them, and we want to see, “Well, does this make it easier for them to work their way out of this Hobbesian‐​looking jungle or is it more difficult?”

06:17 BW: And actually, what comes out of it is the humility that there’s very little we can do as the experimenters to help them get this off the ground, that they kinda do it on their own. And all the little tweaks that we would throw in to help them out ’cause we thought, “Well, that looks like there’s some bad apples out there. Let’s give them the ability to find a way to shun them,” could have all these negative consequences as well as they all close themselves off and they don’t trade. And so they may not be having theft, but they’re also not having any specialization in trade. And so the experimental method is a way to test our own intuitions of how we think things might work and how we can help them out and learn, basically be disabused of our notions of what we can do to actually make that happen.

07:05 TB: Yeah, I remember playing the game. It kinda starts where you… Someone initially figures out, ’cause you give instructions in a very specific way. You don’t imply anything. And then someone eventually, one of the groups figures out that you can steal, but that’s part of the problem here is that implies property, just from other people. And then everyone starts trying to figure out who’s doing the stealing, and then there’s a lot of accusations. This is all in a chat box, by the way, and some of these are printed in Bart’s book. There’s a bunch of accusations where you say, “Everyone steal from this guy,” or, “That guy is the guy stealing.” And then people start trying to make deals and say, “I won’t steal from you if you don’t steal from me.” But some people might figure out that stealing is better. For me, it was pretty much chaos to the very end when you didn’t have property rights, and as you said, that tends to be the case, but people do start trying to make deals when they figure out what’s going on, but usually they aren’t successful.

08:01 BW: Yes, and I think the key part you started with that description was that we give them very sparse language, just the bare details about how to move things around on the screen and how things work. And deliberately we use the instructions about how things move around in the passive voice. And we say the items that have been moved in this way to your house will generate earnings. And so we don’t give them any of this moral language. It’s you, the participants, that call it stealing, that bring in this, “Well, that’s not right. That’s wrong.” And that’s the important part, that they’re putting all of that moral… They’re bringing all that from their lives, and then bringing it out in this particular instance of the world that they’re being thrown into.

08:51 BW: And that’s what we’re interested in. We want to see how does that help them organize, or fail to organize. And the rare exceptions that were successful were the ones where we were kind of ignoring that and realized that’s got to be the part where we start to understand, “Well, what makes them special?” And then we can see, “Well, why is it that the vast majority of these groups are unable to make it work?” One feature is that we have a bunch of strangers thrown into this, and that really makes things hard, as opposed to coming, bringing in people you know, having families, which is what’s going on in the natural world, so in some way we’re making the problem harder than in the naturally occurring world.

09:36 AP: How representative are these outcomes? If you do the same game with… You do it with undergrads, or you do it with people at one of these seminars versus people in other countries, different cultures, different language groups and so on, do you see similar stuff or there are meaningful differences between groups and how they engage with and kinda play out these games?

10:00 BW: So I haven’t run them in the kind of controlled scientific way, like they were run at George Mason University and at Chatham University, but I have run them in informal environments like the one that Trevor was in in other countries, and it’s very similar. It’s just concerning to me because when they’re discussing in the chat room in a different language, I’m not able to follow anything so it’s not as fun from that perspective, but I can see the items are still flying around. And I think the way to think about it is that it is a contrived situation, but it’s one where I’m trying to test my priors as an economist about how I think the world works, and this is a way of learning, well, I have these expectations, and now why am I failing at this? What could explain that, and what’s the next treatment to really flush out the social dynamics?

10:54 TB: So doing these experiments led you to start thinking differently about property in sort of a foundational sense, I guess is a good way of putting it, that economists and lawyers and social scientists haven’t thought, “I’m a lawyer, so I think about property as a bundle of rights. And I think about property rights.” But you think about property differently as a more… I’m just going to say primal, I said foundational, I can’t think of the right adjective for this, but something that’s deeply rooted in human nature.

11:25 BW: Right. And so we see all these math tests and experiments, and we think, well, how is it that philosophers have been thinking about this problem. And so I began reading David Hume on property, mainly because I’d been reading Adam Smith. And so I kinda thought, well, maybe there I can understand it a little better, having that connection between the two Scots. And then, of course, you have to read John Locke if you’re going to do anything in property. And that’s where I noticed that they didn’t use the modern language of property rights, which is the way economists think about it, the way you mentioned lawyers think about it. It’s a very modern way of thinking about it, when I realized that that’s not how they were thinking about it 200, 300 years ago. And so what is the difference?

12:13 BW: Is there something different, or is it just a new word to describe the same thing? And that kind of set me out on this project to figure out what is the difference between property and property rights. And I kind of came down to that there is a major difference, that property rights is, as a term, is very new. It’s a very 20th century kind of word, it started in the mid‐​19th century. But that property undergirds this very modern notion, and so property rights is that the high level of a polity, of a bunch of communities connected with a political system, but property is more ancient than political systems, just like trade is more ancient than the state.

13:02 BW: I’m arguing property precedes property rights, and is at the core, property’s at the core of what we understand property rights to be. And the book is not about property rights. It’s about this core that we call property, which I would argue that’s what Hume would recognize when he uses the phrase property, or what Locke would recognize as property, or Grotius would recognize as property.

13:26 AP: Can you give us an example to distinguish those two, like what it would mean to talk about something being property without using either the specific term property rights, I.e., it’s something that you have a right of property in, or even kind of that concept, just to make it clear what you mean by property pre‐​dating property rights?

13:47 BW: Sure. So the 17th and 18th century philosophers and before would say things like, “So and so has property in X.” They would say they would have property in a thing, and it’s that term, that phrase, that we moderns recognize what it kind of means, but it’s not the way we talk about, and that got me thinking, well, what is… Why would they use this phrase have property in something? And so they are thinking about it, they could think about it as a right, ’cause that’s the kind of concept that was gaining currency at the time, but property, I argue, is a custom, a way of thinking about how we interact with each other regarding things.

14:43 BW: And that can have moral implications, it could have legal implications as well, but I want to push it back a little bit and think of it more as a customary way of going about things in a Hayekian way of using the word custom, and that rights are things that we tend to grant. The language of rights is that it’s been granted by the government. The court has decided this, the legislature has granted that, whereas property doesn’t need to be granted. If you put people out there without a polity, they’re going to have… Come up with the rules and the order regarding how people use things, and treat things, and move things around, and it doesn’t have to have a legislature grant anything for that to happen.

15:27 TB: But animals even have property, it seems like. A dog will snarl if you want to take its bone, birds have nests, some other birds use tools to do things. Is that the beginning, would you say, for where we get our sense of property?

15:43 BW: Ah, and that’s where I, that’s the other divergent tack I take in the book. And so that looks like property in other animals, that they don’t like having things taken without of their grasp. If the dog has a toy in its mouth, it really doesn’t want you to pull it out of there. Bear sows are going to make sure that if you’re in the way between them and their cubs that you’re going to be attacked. So it looks like they have the same mechanisms for defending the possession of something, but I argue in the book that property is more than just defending against dispossession, that property is looking at a thing and recognizing it to be something different that has some characteristics of the world, and what you won’t see in any other animal is this notion of being able to perceive it as mine, and that is yours, and Adam Smith very famously made that observation that you’ve never seen an animal by its gestures and natural cries signify to another, this is mine, and that is yours.

16:54 BW: Animals will react in saying… Defending it being taken from them, but they won’t to go through the act of saying that is yours. They are going to refrain from getting beaten up, but that’s not saying that is yours, and that’s what I argue is special about humans, that we have this ability with abstract thought to change the characteristics of the very thing themselves, and think of it as mine, and that is yours, and that you don’t have property until you have mine and yours.

17:29 AP: Are there… There are lots of different kinds of property, and it seems like some might hook more on to that fundamental sense of mine and yours, or be more natural than others, which might end up depending more on property rights, is the way you articulated it, and I’m wondering if that’s born out in games in your experimental research and the historical research. So I’m imagining on the extreme end of what would feel like kind of natural urges to believing we have a property in something would be personal objects, and even people who are far less sanguine about robust private property than say libertarians are, typically thinks it’s okay to have to have a strong property interest in the shirt on your back, and there’s something wrong with someone coming and taking that.

18:21 AP: On the opposite end of that might be strong property rights in the extended fruits of the corporation that you are the head of, down to the labor of the individual workers, and in between that might be large tracts of land. Is there, I guess, a growth in the notion of what counts as property as we start to develop the ideas of property rights and kind of legalize these relationships, and is there a point at which the kinds of things that we’re talking about as property don’t really map on to these fundamental senses that you’re identifying?

19:01 BW: That’s a big question, and I spend a lot of time in the book drilling down to, okay, where could this big difference occur in the human career regarding how we treat things. And I think the key concept of how property works is this very ancient concept of mine. And it turns out that mine is a concept that is in every language. In every language you can say this is mine, and in every language you cannot break that down into any further, smaller conceptual sets of meanings. It just means this and mine. And it’s that concept, when that comes into the human career where I think property takes off, because once you have mine you can also do think about this reciprocally, and say, “that is yours.” You can say about it, “that is mine.”

20:03 BW: And that is what you don’t see in any other animal, that kind of abstract concept, and that I try to pin it down and make the case that that would come with tool use, and that gets us a connection between us and our non‐​human primate cousins who are very flexible users of tools, and they pass that tool use down from generation, that has to be taught. It can’t just… It’s not… They’re not born with cracking nuts with a hammer and anvil tools, they have to be taught that as a kid. And so it’s that notion of tools and then mine that is the core of how property works, and that’s why I spend the time focusing in the book on basically chattels and movable things, because I think that’s where property started, and then we start applying… Once we have this abstract concept, we can apply it all over the place. That’s the beautiful thing about ideas. They can recombine, the world can change around you and you can apply them in new ways.

21:11 BW: And so then we started applying it to land. The difference is land, however, doesn’t move, but it still has these ideas of a border to it. Physical tools have an inside and outside and a boundary to them, land kind of has the same features, and so it seemed kind of natural, I would think, in human history to then apply the concept of mine to land, and it would explain why some groups of humans had seemed to apply that notion, and other groups of humans didn’t. And then as society continues to progress and change and evolve, we start applying mine to such things as ideas, and this is where I think we come into problems, and why that our mine, that property has been created with this notion of physical things and it being contained in the thing in a way that where the thing goes, so my property and it goes as well, but now you have it applied to ideas, but ideas don’t have these nice clear boundaries, and it doesn’t seem to go away.

22:23 BW: If I have the idea and then you have the idea, but I still have it, it’s not gone. And so it conflicts with our very ancient way of thinking about it. I think the other notion of where this conflict comes in is, as you mentioned, the idea that we create something. I think, again, when we create a tool, something new has been produced in the world, and we see it as this new creation, and it’s coming out of my work. That’s pretty ancient, I would argue. And so we have that idea, but then we have this modern idea of the world where you have a capitalist who also has created this physical plant of sort, and they call that mine. Now you put that mine with the work of the… With a employee working in it, and you have this enteric tension, I would argue, between, “Well, I’m working on it, so I should call it mine,” and the capitalist saying, “Well, this is my stuff that you’re using in order to create things, so it’s mine.”

23:24 BW: And that is… I think is the heart of the Marxist critique. There’s this kind of deep‐​seated conflict of who gets to claim the produce of this process as mine, ’cause mine really doesn’t… Mine can only… A thing can really only have one mine in it at a time, otherwise the word mine really doesn’t work, and it seems to be exclusive in that way. It’s first personal, just like I is first personal, and there’s only one I, me. You can call yourself I, but I can call myself I, but I don’t call you I. It’s reflexive in that way.

24:06 TB: It’s interesting, because reading your book, it reminded me of an essay by Jean‐​Paul Sartre called Existentialism Is A Humanism where he says that existentialism is existence before essence, but essentially, he describes how people make things because they first think of what the thing is supposed to do, the essence of the thing, and then they make it. So if someone thinks that I need a spear to shove into a woolly mammoth, and before the spear actually exists, they’ve conceptualized the spear, which does create this idea of ownership, I think, is your kind of argument, that symbolic thing, where I’ve done something more than hitting a nut with a rock. But that gets us into almost arguing for copyright because it’s the idea that makes it yours. It’s the conceptualization of it. So it doesn’t seem that big of a leap to go to saying, well, you can own the concept too, in addition to the physical thing.

25:07 BW: Oh, I don’t think it’s a big leap, but it’s a leap fraught with conflict, because you’re likely to get contestable claims over who can claim that idea as mine, and that’s where the problem comes. It’s not that we can’t do it, that we don’t apply it, but it seems to be ripe for having two people wanting to claim the same idea as mine, and now, what do we do? And I think… I mean, I haven’t read that Sartre essay. That sounds interesting, I’d like to do that, because I think that’s important. And again, in distinguishing human and non‐​human perceptions of the world, if I take a point and a shaft, and I put some haft to put it together, our mind see this object as something new. It’s not just a point and a shaft and some haft together close together in physical space, it’s a new thing with a purpose of, as you mentioned, to go stick it in a big fleeing mammal.

26:10 BW: And that idea to conceptualize the physical world as a new thing, it’s a new idea, it’s a spear only because it actually can stab a fleeing mammal. If it’s broken, it’s a broken spear. It’s not really a spear unless it can do what I want it to do, and that power of the mind is important for understanding, I would argue, how property works. We do the same kind of thing. It’s not just a tool, but now it’s something I call mine.

26:44 AP: How universal is this sense, because we often hear about various, either people in the historic past, or small tribes in various locations around the world that don’t have this sense of mine, that everything is owned communally, that private property is a totally foreign concept to them. Is there any truth to that at all?

27:13 BW: I think anthropologists are pretty much in agreement, even if it’s kind of out of fashion to these days, that there’s a small subset of things about which somebody can say, “this is mine,” and that might be in a group of people so small as tools, utensils and ornaments, and then that’s kind of opened up. It’s basically anything that I can individually create, that that would be something you would say is mine. Terry Anderson has these great pictures of the Native Americans out there on their buffalo hunts, and those spears are marked. They’re marked to note whose they are. And so, every society will have a set of these tools that you just can’t go around and pick up and take. Now, if you work together to create a canoe, then that is a new thing that’s in the world, but no one person can say, “this is mine” about it. And so, that’s a whole different class of stuff than, say, the clothes that I have, that I’ve made myself, the spears that I’ve made myself, the ornaments that I have created.

28:30 BW: And this didn’t use to be contestable in mid‐​20th century anthropology, that every human community has some small subset of things about which someone can say, “this is mine” and no one else can say that. And Donald Brown was an anthropologist who had some doubts about the universality of human traits, and then, when he started getting into it realized no, there are these human universals, and being able to treat something as mine is one of those things about a very small subset. Other groups of people are going to apply it all over the place, and I think that’s the Western European tradition: Applying it to land, applying it now to ideas, applying it to copyright and things like that. But the form of it, I argue, is the same and that there’s a core form of it that every human group has.

29:27 TB: I recently watched, kind of dovetailing off Aaron’s question, I recently re‐​watched the classic and completely crazy movie The Gods Must Be Crazy, and it goes off this topic, where this property‐​less Sub‐​Saharan African tribe gets a Coke bottle, and it suddenly creates the problem of ownership for the first time in the tribe. Now, aside from whether or not this is accurate, as you pointed out, it probably isn’t, but it does bring up the question of property creating violence, that that’s what eventually happens, where people start trying to claim it, and then the claim of it means you defend it, and then you start hitting people over the head with your bottle that you now claim. One of the Marxist critiques too, to some extent, and radical, left‐​wing critiques is that property is a form of violence, it’s a form of theft, and it’s something that engenders violence in society. Which could be true or at least we see it sometimes, at least.

30:27 BW: Well, so I think it goes both directions, and I think that’s part of what has been lost. The story has been that property creates violence, and I think I’ll push back on that it actually creates the violence. I think we can put that agency somewhere else, instead of in the thing or into the custom of property. But property is also a way of settling and avoiding conflict, and I think that is the notion of where it comes about in the first place. It’s a way of settling out so that we don’t have conflicting claims of, “this is mine,” that we can settle down and focus our energies in other things as opposed to defending conflicting claims of, “this thing is mine,” ’cause human groups that are in conflict are less likely to survive, and those that are able to be more peaceful are going to have better lives and be more successful.

31:21 BW: And so, property is, originally, I would argue, that’s kind of… Shakes out as a way to settle and keep conflict at bay. But anything that can be used to create peace can also be an object of envy or even just general good faith misunderstanding of what the rules are or how things work can lead to problems. And so, every human society has to have a way of settling disputes. And property is one of those ways.

31:57 TB: And preventing disputes, to some extent, from occurring before they can occur. One of the things I like about your theory and having, as I said, played the game, you have a line or a little section of your book, resentment prompts people to act, that actually the core feeling here is a feeling of resentment when someone breaks the rules. And that happens in the game when you start seeing that someone is stealing or accusing someone of stealing, everyone gets very, very mad at that person as if they’ve done something wrong, even though no rules have been set up about these property rights, but there’s something inherent in the thing. It really is primal in that sense. It’s that sense of, in your gut, that someone took something from you and you might want to go get it back so it builds out of the core emotions as opposed to abstract concepts.

32:49 BW: Yes, and so, I’m very Adam Smithian in the sense that its sentiment, which is a thinking and a feeling idea that prompts us to do something, and so, we could have resentment because somebody has… You know, we perceive as being harmed as having taken the thing. We can also have resentment just because I resent or I envy what somebody else has, and that can be the source of the conflict, and that’s why the property can go both ways. And it’s up to the community to decide, well, when is it proper to be resentful and when is it not?

33:27 AP: Is this, though, property as a way to avoid this kind of conflict, just potentially trading one conflict, I.e., the chaotic violence that you might get, that rears its head in the game that Trevor played, even if it’s virtual violence there, trading that against, essentially, oppression that yes, if we have strong property, we might not have as much conflict in the open punching each other over stuff sense, but that property allows the people who have it to control or oppress in a less spectacular and fisticuffs fashion those people who don’t.

34:12 AP: I’m thinking I just randomly stumbled across a piece of writing from a translator of ancient texts who I’ve read a fair amount, and he had this idea. I’m just going to read this, because I think that this speaks to this notion that a lot of people very strongly have of property. He said, “What makes a billionaire rich is not that they can enjoy relaxing on a beach. Seals do that, and they have nothing. What makes them rich is that they can stop poor people from enjoying the same beach. That is at the heart of the benefit of wealth, to exclude others from the Earth’s resources.” Are we… If property is necessarily exclusionary, are we basically just saying, “Here’s… We’re going to accept this other bad thing just to stave off people fighting over who the spear belongs to.”

35:01 BW: I think that’s a very important observation and a key part that I came late to in writing the book and realizing that this is why… Property is not just one person claiming, “this is mine,” property is jointly reciprocal, “it’s mine and thine.” And if you have a situation where people can’t claim things as mine, that’s not going to be settling the problem, and that’s not going to settle the conflict. I think that’s exactly the situation you’re bringing up here, that if other people can’t claim things as mine, then there’s a problem and yes, that doesn’t actually settle it. And so you have to have mine and thine.

35:46 BW: I think about it this way, if, the way you put in that example, you have this billionaire who owns lots of things and other people don’t own anything. He’s basically relying on them, in the notion of property, that they can say… You can say a lot [36:03] ____ as a billionaire, “This is mine.” Well, but, I’m not going to rely on that if I can’t claim things as mine, and so on. If it’s out of balance in a way that there isn’t mine and thine, you really haven’t settled the core part of the dispute. You have to have both of them.

36:20 TB: So what’s the normative point here in the sense of, if your historical description is correct and this is an explanation for how humans derived the sense of property and then into our legal systems and our conventions today, but is there a normative point here that we can derive from this observational point that we should be following these instincts as opposed to rising above them?

36:47 BW: Well, I’m an economist, so I get… It’s in my DNA to be a little concerned about making normative prescriptive claims coming out of this. I hope the book is more of a description of how it works, that I’ve done a good job of explaining how it works and a feature of that. But part of it is… Behind my motivation for writing the book is to get people to think about, well, if this is the fact about how it works and there are community standards and people on the ground, how it works, then that might mean there are normative things to consider at the polity level, at the political level of what we call property rights. And then that can’t ignore what happens at the very personal level and community level, which is perceived by them to be a very moral situation. So, is there a normative claim? I’m sure they are. I’m going to be a little cagey in going down that route, because that’s not my comparative advantage.

37:52 TB: Well, as a lawyer, it seems that one of the normative claims or at least observational claims is that, it’s hard to put on to people a new system of possession. For example, if you wanted to reform the world and say, “This is how we’re going to do things now. No more finders keepers. What you made is not yours, collective ownership,” whatever, it might require a lot of force to do that if it doesn’t jibe with the way people already think about the world, that we can say, “Well, people are behaving in a certain way. They’ve figured out these rules,” and to change these rules might, at the very least, require much more enforcement force than to go along with some rules that they already have in the back of their head. So that could be possibly one normative point.

38:47 BW: Yes, if that’s the normative point, that property is not top‐​down, I will lend my credence to that in terms of that the book is making that kind of claim. I think the idea that people tend to think property is this top‐​down, people make claims like governments must enforce rights before it can… Must grant rights before they can be enforced. I don’t think that’s right. I think there’s something going down at the individual and how we’re taught at a very young age and in the communities that we live, and so we can’t ignore that. If that’s the… I can go that far in making a normative statement.

39:31 TB: Well, in another… One thing that I appreciated too, because you do reference both the famous case of Pierson v. Post, which is something everyone reads in law school about who owns the fox, the fox hunter or the person who trapped it. And also a case, which I believe is called Smith, about whale hunting. Aaron also went to law school, but he doesn’t remember it as well as I do and he’s not really a lawyer anymore. But you did another experiment, which is interesting, ’cause you do see that people, even in situations… And this goes back to sort of Alchian and Demsetz, who you reference a bunch in the book, that even in situations where it seems like you can’t really figure out how property can work, such as in a whale that is swimming in the open ocean, people actually do end up figuring out ways of doing that, and you showed that in a game too.

40:20 BW: Yeah, so I think there are some common ways our human minds will abstract this idea of mine and put it into things, and that there are some basic rules about how that works. And so yeah, I spend one chapter going through these found property disputes and arguing that this idea of a concept of mine being contained in the thing, it can explain our basic intuitions about who should be able to claim a found item as mine. And we use those physical boundaries of the thing to help us solve that problem and that we don’t… We may not have been taught that explicit rule, but I think in a Hayekian sense, that rule comes out of all these different cases and disputes. And I designed an experiment to put it to the test, and basically the participants agree with me 80% of the time.

41:25 AP: I’m curious about how you design these experiments, just what the process is of, you’ve got some concepts that you want to test or explore… How do you go about coming up with a specific game and set of rules that will inform that?

41:45 BW: So if it’s being past experience will be the kind of the staring point, like, “Oh, I think I’ve learned this.” I mentioned at the beginning, we had an experiment on how exchange… Specialization exchange are related. And then we just changed that and started looking at notions of property. For this book, I wanted to come up with a test that was coming out of these legal cases, and in one case, you want to pick something very stark, and so I picked the example of the case of Durfee v. Jones because it seemed to fit the theory really, really well, which means if the subjects don’t follow it, they are telling me something pretty strong here that I need to look into.

42:34 BW: And so that’s part of the design is, okay, how can I put myself way out there and then be ready to be rebuffed. And then if I am, if it’s the way the participants conduct themselves fits what I expect, if that’s the case, then I want to go and see if I can break it or how far can I push this before it doesn’t work anymore. And so that’s the tack I took in this project, like alright, I’ve built this world that seems to mimic the case of Durfee v. Jones, and then I’m going… And it seemed to work really, really well, and then I actually changed the piece that was supposed to change the result. I changed the claim of who could say this thing is mine, and all of a sudden the results didn’t go anywhere. And so now I’m wrong. I have to find out why.

43:25 BW: And that, I think, is the way to think about experimental economics, the laboratory method of inquiry, it’s to work on my expectations about how I think it works, and then learn and make sure I pay close attention to listen to what the subjects are trying to tell me.

43:41 TB: Now, you criticize in the book to some extent, or comment on, the way the economics books, say Mankiw, talks about property and the way it’s referenced sort of in beginning and a couple other times, but not really discussed. So if your book affects economists and how they think about this, how would you like the first chapters of maybe a Principles of Econ textbook to talk about property differently than what they do now?

44:10 BW: Well, there isn’t a sense that in the modern textbook that economics is really founded on exchange, they don’t think about it, it’s… We take the familiar world around us in terms of prices, and we kinda take for granted what a price means, and we go from there. As to really get the core… The way Adam Smith would think about it, that first of all, we have this basic disposition to trade one thing for another thing, and all the rest of it is just figuring out how to make that work as well as it can. And so we are left in… With a modern sense that we gotta have this top‐​down government must grant rights before we’re going to have trade out there, and I think… We have the sense that trade and the state go together, where it’s pretty clear that trade predates the state and that property predates property rights.

45:11 BW: And property, I would make the case, is what makes exchange possible. If we don’t have mine and thine, you really can’t get the exchange of stuff. And that’s where I would like to see this beginning of economics that I understand that that is yours, and you understand that this is mine, and now we’re going to try to figure out how we’re going to change that, and how do we… All these other great economic questions come out of that, and how prices facilitate that, and how the institutions have built up around that to keep, support price discovery are really important, but it’s not the core of, “This is mine, that is yours, and now I want to trade,” and I want to be able to say, “This is not mine, this is yours,” and you reciprocally say the same thing to me, and now we’ve created value in the world and we’re both better off. That seems to be the core part of it, and then all the other stuff is on top of it.


46:19 AP: Thank you for listening. If you enjoy Free Thoughts, make sure to rate and review us in Apple Podcasts or in your favorite podcast app. Free Thoughts is produced by Landry Ayres. If you’d like to learn more about libertarianism, visit us on the web at www​.lib​er​tar​i​an​ism​.org.