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.