Being Bourgeois. the Emergence of Private Property in the Lab

Marco Fabbri (University of Rotterdam)
Matteo Rizzolli (LUMSA Universty)

Abstract: Empirical studies have long shown that humans -as well as some animal species- often respect ownership even in the absence of the rule of law. The emergence of property rights has been described by theoretical biologists (Smith, 1982) as a successful evolutionary strategy -the bourgeois strategy- that minimizes the expected losses in a contest for scarce resources described by the well known Hawk and Dove (H&D) game. However, from the theoretical point of view the anti- bourgeois strategy is as good as the bourgeois one and therefore the predominance of respect for property observed in many societies still lacks a clearcut game theoretical explanation. In this paper we study by mean of a controlled laboratory experiment based on an H&D game whether some established rules of property acquisition trigger the emergence of the bourgeois strategy. We manipulate the way this initial claim to the amount is established. In the first treatment (Manna) the initial claim is assigned ranomly as manna-from-heaven. In the second treatment (Treasure) it is the result of a treasure hunt that mimics the rule of first possession/treasure trove. In the third treatment (Effort) it is the result of a payment for having worked in a standard effort task. We also have a fourth treatment where subjects in a couple are randomly assigned the color red or blue at the beginning of each period (No Property), hence introducing an uncorrelated asymmetry that is not related to property. In the three treatments in which property rights are assigned we observe a majority of subjects coor- dinating over a bourgeois strategy. While the level of efficiency achieved during the thirty periods of the experiment are similar across the four treatments, nonetheless the assignment of property rights greatly reduces the inequality among the experimental subjects compared to No Property treatment.