Where property rights really come from

Amara’s daycare (which, as you would expect, is the caricature of the overachieving and neurotic Manhattan nursery) doesn’t believe in sharing.

If a Amara has a toy and Billy wants it, Amara is taught not to give it to Billy. Rather, Billy is told that it is Amara’s toy, and that he can have it when she’s done, whenever that may be. Amara is taught to say “mine” and fend off foul Billy.

The idea, they say, is to help a child (especially quieter ones like Amara) feel more secure, and thus share more confidently later in life.

My first thought: this is crazy.

My second thought: this is brilliant. This is the history of property rights in early human society: a set of norms that evolve to solve zero sum games, and thus promote harmony and cooperation in the absence of a coercive state.

The closest I can come to finding the formal treatment is this paper by Sam Bowles and Jung-Kyoo Choi, recommended to me a few months back by Suresh Naidu when I was looking for something to help me study ethnically riven land conflict in Liberia. Daycare did not occur to me on first reading. But it echoes something I believe more every day: We worry far too much about constitutions and legal origins, and not enough about informal norms.

Thus, while the rest of you are arguing about inclusive institutions and the Glorious Revolution, and while I tramp about the jungle, it turns out we all should have been experimenting with the Columbia daycare.

Sadly, N<30, so no experiments there for me. This wouldn’t stop a psychologist, but isn’t enough to get a politics or economics paper published. So back to the jungle for me.

32 thoughts on “Where property rights really come from

  1. I’d say you should view it as the daycare (with 30 children) being n=1… You just need to find a way to randomly assign different teaching on sharing/property rights to different daycares!

  2. Are you sure? Some of your colleagues have published experimental papers with fewer than 30 subjects. Better yet, find 2 more daycare centers to participate and you have ~100 subjects. Has to be easier than the long flights to Kampala.

  3. What you need is to a physics styled experiment with a load of “co-authors” who participate with multiple treatment sites. And if it’s pooled crossections (multiple years/experiments) with controls for learning, you’ve upped you N. You could try longitudinal but I suspect you’d have a short panel. There is a bit of an econ baby boom on right now, why not capitalize on it? Also, what a great field exercise for MAs and undergrads who want to do experimental econ.

    And this is not the first time daycare has been used to explain markets. There’s a classic paper from Sweeney & Sweeney (1978) on “Monetary Theory and the Great Capitol Hill Baby-Sitting Co-op Crisis.”

    C. who would offer up her kid as a control (or another treatment) given he has a nanny, relatively few encounters with kids, and clearly understands bargaining theory better than his parents.

  4. “… and that he can have it when she’s done…”

    When I finish exploiting the property, my right over it reverts to the commons?

    Sounds to me like a communal lending library of toys. Assuming anything is learned, these kids are going to grow up to be model citizens when borrowing books. But this is not really a good analogy with property rights.

    The family who live next door to me drove off to the airport a few days ago and I haven’t seen them since. So I assume they are “done with” their house and all its contents and now it’s my turn to play with them!

    (Disclosure of my own early development: from what I remember of my infancy, playtime worked on the lending library model – the forced-sharing alternative was unheard of and would have seemed barbaric.)

  5. I think you have summed up perfectly why we are trying to not do this with our daughter. Toddler groups are difficult places to negotiate though as most parents do exactly as you describe – label the toy as belonging to someone when really it doesn’t.

  6. Hi, the link is broken, is this the article you mean Sam Bowles and Jung-Kyoo Choi, “Coevolution of farming and private property during the early Holocene”? I think prop rights are terribly theorised in pol theory (after a phd in them) – best we all start calling them ‘rules’ to capture how many are informal not legal. JC Penner is brilliant on this

  7. Hi, the link is broken: is this the article you mean Sam Bowles and Jung-Kyoo Choi, Coevolution of farming and private property during the early Holocene?