Empirical Problems with the Hobbesian Account

In two recent posts, my co-blogger Michael Tontchev has been criticizing some of the theoretical underpinnings of Hobbes’ “state of nature”. I would also note the empirical evidence against the notion that property and organization is impossible without a centralized State.

In “The First Property Rights Revolution”, Samuel Bowles and Jung-Kyoo Choi claim that individual property rights emerged thousands of years before States did (p. 1):
Hobbes’ state of nature is a valuable thought experiment, but taken as history (which Hobbes did not) it is deficient…. First, individually-held property rights in land, its produce, and other sources of people’s livelihood emerged with the domestication of plants and animals starting around 11,000 years ago, while in most cases states developed many millennia afterwards. Recognizably modern property rights existed in these newly agrarian societies without the assistance of states. Among fishing people and other sedentary foragers, individual or family-based property rights appear to have existed even before the advent of domestication.

They continue, describing the alternative mechanisms usually employed to secure property rights by pre-State humans (p. 1-2):

The second historical shortcoming of the Hobbesian account is that it is quite unlikely
that Hobbes’ state of nature ever existed. For most of our history as biologically modern humans – roughly the 100,000 years prior to the advent of agriculture – social interactions were organized without the aid of institutions even remotely resembling contemporary states or private property in land or the other sources of people’s livelihoods. They apparently did not, however, suffer the chaos of the Hobbesean [sic] state of nature. Rather, in all likelihood, beginning as early as 100,000 years ago in Africa and later in other parts of the world, these groups were organized in a manner similar to a subset of the modern mobile hunter-gatherers described in historical and ethnographic accounts, their lives regulated by social norms enforced by collective punishment of miscreants.
Indeed, much of the motivation for recognizing property norms is likely genetic, as Jeffrey Evans Stake argues in “The Property ‘Instinct’ “:
Evolutionary theory and empirical studies suggest that many animals, including humans, have a genetic predisposition to acquire and retain property. This is hardly surprising because survival is closely bound up with the acquisition of things: food, shelter, tools and territory. But the root of these general urges may also run to quite specific and detailed rules about property acquisition, retention and disposition. The great variation in property-related behaviours across species may mask some important commonalities grounded in adaptive utility. Experiments and observations in the field and laboratory suggest that the legal rules of temporal priority and possession are grounded in what were evolutionarily stable strategies in the ancestral environment. Moreover, the preferences that humans exhibit in disposing of their property on their deaths, both by dispositions made in wills and by the laws of intestacy, tend to advance reproductive success as a result of inclusive fitness pay-offs.
Of course, evolutionary behaviors also guide the State’s legal rules, but it is still significant that humans (and other species, for that matter) possess instincts leading them to behave with greater ingrained respect for property ownership than Hobbes might suppose they would.
On a similar note to Stake’s arguments, Bryan Caplan discusses Herbert Gintis’ “The Evolution of Private Property”, and notes that black markets are a significant example of property rights existing not only without government enforcement, but with active government opposition.
Finally, it is worth noting that Bowles is a neo-Marxian, and Gintis has Marxist leanings. One need not be a classical liberal to observe problems with the usefulness of Hobbes’ model in the real world.

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