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"Becoming Just by Eliminating Injustice: The Emergence of Property in Virtual Economies."

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: A Modern Promethean Story," 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. 

"Experimental Tests of the Tolerated Theft and Risk-Reduction Theories of Resource Exchange," with Hillard S. Kaplan, Eric Schniter, and Vernon L. Smith.

Compared with other species, exchange among non-kin is a hallmark of human sociality in both the breadth of individuals and total resources involved. One hypothesis, Risk Reduction Reciprocity (RR) is that extensive exchange evolved to buffer the risks associated with hominid dietary specialization on calorie-dense, large packages, especially from hunting. ‘Lucky’ individuals share food with ‘unlucky’ individuals with the expectation of reciprocity when roles are reversed. Cross-cultural data provide prima facie evidence of pair-wise reciprocity and an almost universal association of high variance resources with greater exchange. However, such evidence is not definitive; an alternative hypothesis is that food sharing is really ‘tolerated theft (TT),’ in which individuals possessing more food allow others to steal from them, due to the threat of violence from hungry individuals. Pair-wise correlations may reflect proximity providing greater opportunities for mutual theft of food. We report a ‘cultural evolution’ experiment, designed to determine whether people form reciprocal relationships or steal resources in response to variance of resource acquisition, even when there is no external enforcement of any transfer agreements that might emerge. The key feature of the experimental design is that individuals can transfer resources to others, attempt to take resources from others and defend those takeaway attempts. We find, as predicted by RR and contradicting TT: 1) take-away attempts and successes (take-aways) decreased, and amount shared increased, as the experiment progressed; 2) reciprocity was stronger in the high variance condition in pairwise interactions; and 3) experimental earnings increased with amount shared, interacting positively with variance, and decrease with takeaways initiated, again supporting RR and contradicting TT. The results provide strong support for the hypothesis that people are pre-disposed to evaluate gains from exchange, and respond to unsynchronized variance in resource availability through endogenous reciprocal trading relationships.

"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.

"The Social Welfare of Civil Forfeiture," with Michael Preciado. A video demonstration of the software is available here.

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.

This site was last updated 03/24/17.