Can Altruism Explain the Emergence of Markets and Private Property?

Rooted in the wide but dispered literature in experimental economics, a richer game theory, and simulations, Sam Bowles’ new book Microeconomics: Behavior, Institutions, Evolution departs from what has been the norm in the discipline by, among other things, trying to integrate altruism into the standard model of human behavior and use it to explain the emergence of private property and markets.

Eric Maskin reviews the book in Science.

“Indeed, Bowles maintains that this sort of altruism is an important ingredient in the workings of modern economies. How else, he asks, but by altruism can we plausibly explain why employees of large companies so often work harder when they own the company themselves? (Each employee is, in effect, participating in a public-good game: working harder to increase the value of the company is personally costly while almost the entire increase accrues to the other employee-owners.)

Yet Bowles goes still further. Not only are altruistic preferences needed for understanding modern economic behavior, they were, he contends, even more important in human prehistory—in particular, for the creation of the institution of private property. As conceived by Bowles, private property is cultural evolution’s answer to the problem of wasteful conflict in human production and exchange.”

Read here on Bowles’ home page, “recent and forthcoming books”.