"Becoming Just by Eliminating
Injustice: The Emergence of Property in Virtual
This chapter explores how
property emerges as a moral convention. To understand
this process I make use of several laboratory
experiments on property in its nascence. A key feature
of these economic experiments is that the participants
can chat in real time with each other regarding their
activities. These candid conversations in the heat of
the moment comprise the data by which I explain how a
group of anonymous strangers become just by mutually
respecting what is mine and what is thine. The dialogue
also illustrates what it means for someone to be unjust,
namely, to inflict real and positive harm on others. As
a window into the minds of the participants, the
language further supports Adam Smith’s claim that the
resentment of harm undergirds our moral sense of
property. We become just in terms of respecting the
boundaries of property through the fellow-feeling of the
ill desert of harm.
"Commerce Unbound," with Jan
Osborn and Gus P. Gradinger.
We experiment with
integrating economics and ethics in a form that could be
described as literary-critical economic nonfiction.
After offering an interpretation of Percy Shelley's
"Prometheus Unbound," we map the modern world of
commerce into our interpretation of the lyrical drama to
revivify bourgeois life as Shelley revivifies the
Promethean story with his own take on the myth. In doing
so we make Shelley’s purpose our own, “to familiarize”
our readers “with beautiful idealisms of moral
excellence" in their everyday lives of commerce.
Shelley’s point and ours is that any
socio-economic revolution, whether from the left or the
right, will ultimately fail if it is fomented by
despair, anger, and hate.
"Human and Monkey Responses in
a Symmetric Game of Conflict with Asymmetric Equilibria,"
with Sarah F. Brosnan, Sara A. Price, Kelly Leverett,
Laurent Prétôt, and Michael Beran.
To better understand the
evolutionary history of human decision making, we
compare the behavior of humans to those of two monkey
species. We extend our earlier work on symmetric
coordination games to a symmetric game of conflict with
two asymmetric equilibria. Our prediction was that
anti-matching would be more difficult than matching with
simultaneous moves. To our surprise, not only did rhesus
macaques frequently play one asymmetric Nash
equilibrium, but so did capuchin monkeys, whose play in
the coordination game was literally not distinguishable
from randomness. Humans were the only species to play
both asymmetric equilibria in a repeated game.
"The Meaning of
Property in Things."
What is property, and why does our species happen to
have it? In this paper I explore how Homo sapiens
acquires and cognizes the custom of property and why
this might be relevant to understanding how property
works in the 21st century. I first draw upon
anthropology, archeology, biology, cognitive
linguistics, and law to argue that humans locate the
meaning of property within a thing. Using philosophy of
property law and actual property disputes, I then
explain how my theory generates a testable hypothesis
and how social scientists, chiefly economists, can no
longer think about property as an external constraint
imposed upon an individual.
You’re on Camera,"
with Joy Buchanan, Matt McMahon, and Matthew
Simpson. A sample of the dictator decisions is available
We investigate the degree to which people
going about their daily lives express other-regarding
behavior in the dictator game. Whereas many studies
have attempted to increase the social distance between
the dictator and experimenter and between the dictator
and dictatee, we attempt to minimize that social
distance between random strangers by video recording
the decisions with the permission of the dictators to
display their image on the Internet. Even though the
mean, median, and modal offers are high relative to
other experiments and a nontrivial number give the
entire experimental windfall away, a nontrivial number
of people keep everything as well.
"The Social Welfare of Civil
Forfeiture," with Michael Preciado. A video
demonstration of the software is available
Using a laboratory
experiment we explore competing claims of social welfare
for civil forfeiture. Experiment participants are tasked
with making trade-offs in allocating resources “to fight
crime” with and without the ability to seize and forfeit
assets. It is an open question whether the societal
impact of reducing crime is greater in a world with or
without civil forfeiture. Proponents of civil forfeiture
argue that the ill-gotten gains of criminals can be used
by law enforcement to further fight crime. Opponents
claim that the confiscation of assets by law enforcement
distorts the prioritization of cases by focusing
attention, not on cases with the largest societal
impact, but on those with the highest valued assets that
can be seized. We find that the public is better off in
a world without civil forfeiture.