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.

A Note on Russell’s Fascinating Renegade History of the US

I recently watched a video of historian Thaddeus Russell giving a lecture based on his book A Renegade History of the United States. The historical aspects of the lecture were quite fascinating – history that I had never been taught in school.

A few main takeaways:

– Many aspects of our culture we take for granted today in fact originated from the “lowlife” of society – prostitutes, slackers, drunkards, and criminals.

– These cultural phenomena were wrested from a society committed to the Puritanical work ethic.

– The way to change law is to change culture – and that’s what the shameless of the past have done.

I recommend watching it if you have 45 minutes (1h 25 mins total with the questions at the end) – they will be minutes well spent:

Besides making a pitch for watching the speech (note: I do not necessarily support the normative suggestions he has for society), I wanted to share an email that I wrote to him (mainly) on his point about labor regulations and hours of labor supplied by workers in Europe:



My name is Michael (I’m an Econ and Comp Sci undergraduate) and I just finished watching the lecture that you gave to NHLF based on your book. I found the lecture to be quite fascinating (and did shed a tear or two at a point), but I wanted to make a quick note of disagreement (about which I could be wrong, of course). You mention in the lecture that one of the reasons why people work less in Europe might be due to labor regulation, but you wave off that reasoning. From what I understand, however, government policy can have a significant effect on labor supplied by workers. A quick overview of the ideas can be seen here:

Glossing over the details, changes in the relative tax rates between the US and European nations over the last decades can do a good job of explaining changes in labor supplied (that is, both the theory predicts the outcome we see and the empirics fit well in the theory).

So I wouldn’t brush aside government policy and labor regulation so easily. (More on this later).

There is another point that I wanted to make on the same topic: I’m European, though I was in elementary school when I left to come to the US. My parents, however, have told me much about their experiences, and I generally believe their observations, which are that Europe has a much more rigid social structure that does allow for as much class mobility. To get ahead, you have to know someone or cheat in some way. As such, the work workers put in simply wouldn’t be worth it, and so they work less. They have no “American Dream” to keep them going (so to speak). They’ve settled into a crappy state of affairs.

Moreover, this might have weird interaction with the tax policy effects mentioned earlier. That is, it might be that Europe has long had a history of lack of social mobility, which has given them fewer incentives to work. But also, it could be that their labor policy has been so bad for so long that their previous Puritanical morals could have been worn down, since they saw that work didn’t yield anything. So it’s not that they’re enlightened – just worn down by a long history of bad policy.

What are your thoughts?

Another question: The way I explain things to myself, morality and the Puritanical work ethic might have been necessary in pre-industrial society in order to have your children survive, no? Life was grueling work at a farm with uncertain crop yields due to unpredictable weather – if your children slacked off, they (and you in your old age) could die. Hence, when society was agrarian and with no capital structure (that is, stuck in the world of Malthus), they needed to teach kids that work was an end in itself – because that’s the only way they could survive.

And lastly: Are the thoughts presented in your lecture consistent with the evolution of the same social phenomena in places outside the US? That is, did the weekend, acceptance of bright clothes, etc. arise in places that are not in the US in the same way – by being introduced by “lowlifes?” Or were these ideas exported from the US?

In any case – I found the historical content of your lecture quite good (even if I haven’t had enough time to ponder over your normative suggestions for society).



The speech/lecture has a lot of other gold nuggets and is well worth a watch.

P.S. Teaching material along these lines got him kicked out of the profession: Why I Got Fired From Teaching American History