5/16 - Bart Wilson on the Property Species

5/16 - Bart Wilson on the Property Species

General notes:

Announce podcast subscribe at the middle of the show (everyone asks for 5-star reviews, but I think you should just ask for honest feedback)

Main points from planning call:

What's the difference between property and property rights?
How does Bart run experiments in economics to discover the origins of property?

Blurb: The Foundations of Property

Property is a concept at once so simple that a 4-year-old can grasp it, yet so complex that the greatest legal minds have not been able to formally settle on a definition.

Law students are presented with the classic case of Pierson v. Post to illustrate how a dispute over the rightful owner of a fox carcass cannot be settled without surveying a whole host of historical legal treatises.

Pinning Down Property

Bart J. Wilson is a Professor of Economics and Law and the Donald P. Kennedy Endowed Chair in Economics and Law at Chapman University, where he co-founded the Smith Institute for Political Economy and Philosophy, for which he serves as the director.

His economic research aims to better understand humans as we interact with each other and our environment - especially with respect to things that can be considered as “yours” and “mine,” i.e., private property.

His new book, The Property Species: Mine, Yours, and the Human Mind, is one of the most comprehensive studies ever undertaken of how we come to own stuff, and from whence this essential concept arises.

Don’t miss my live conversation with Wilson – this Sunday (5/16) at 8 am PACIFIC – as we get to the bottom of the foundations of the concept which itself lies at the foundation of a free and functioning society.

If you can’t listen live, be sure to subscribe to the podcast.


BART J. WILSON is a Professor of Economics and Law and the Donald P. Kennedy Endowed Chair in Economics and Law at Chapman University. He is a member of the Economic Science Institute and tenured in the Argyros School of Business and Economics and the Fowler School of Law. In Fall 2016, he co-founded with Jan Osborn (English), Vernon Smith (Economics and Law), and Keith Hankins (Philosophy) the Smith Institute for Political Economy and Philosophy, for which he serves as the director.

Bart has published papers widely in economics and general science journals, including the American Economic Review, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Scientific Reports, and Nature Human Behaviour. His research has been supported with grants from the National Science Foundation, the Federal Trade Commission, and the International Foundation for Research in Experimental Economics. Bart’s undergraduate teaching supports the Humanomics minor at upper division level and Chapman’s First-Year Foundations Course at the lower division. He also teaches a seminar for law school students on spontaneous order and the law.

Prior to joining the faculty at Chapman, he was an Associate Professor of Economics at George Mason University and before that a Research Scientist at the Economic Science Laboratory at the University of Arizona. He started his professional career as an Economist at the Federal Trade Commission. Bart received his Ph.D. in Economics from the University of Arizona and his B.S. in Economics and Mathematics from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. He hails from the great State of Wisconsin.

Book Summary/Articles


What is property, and why does our species happen to have it? The Property Species explores how Homo sapiens acquires, perceives, and knows the custom of property, and why it might be relevant for understanding how property works in the twenty-first century. Arguing from some hard-to-dispute facts that neither the natural sciences nor the humanities—nor the social sciences squarely in the middle—are synthesizing a full account of property, this book offers a cross-disciplinary compromise that is sure to be controversial: All human beings and only human beings have property in things, and at its core, property rests on custom, not rights. Such an alternative to conventional thinking contends that the origins of property lie not in food, mates, territory, or land, but in the very human act of creating, with symbolic thought, something new that did not previously exist. Integrating cognitive linguistics with the philosophy of property and a fresh look at property disputes in the common law, this book makes the case that symbolic-thinking humans locate the meaning of property within a thing. The provocative implications are that property—not property rights—is an inherent fundamental principle of economics, and that legal realists and the bundle-of-sticks metaphor are wrong about the facts regarding property. Written by an economist who marvels at the natural history of humankind, the book is essential reading for experts and any reader who has wondered why people claim things as “Mine!,” and what that means for our humanity.

April 16, 2021

A British kids show illustrates how naturally kids want to take possession of things that aren’t theirs until their parents teach them the custom of property.

Review by Timothy Sandefur, November 4, 2020

Property is not synonymous with property rights. It pre-dates government, and its morality is more than just a gov't conferred privilege.

Humans teach their young how not to acquire things - i.e., that stealing is wrong.

People have property in things, not merely a right to things.

Wilson's experimental simulations are used to tease out the morality of certain actions, by seeing how people respond to different situations where real money is on the line. Experimentees are rewarded based on how well they do in the game. There are different strategies like cooperation, theft, and isolation.

Sandefur says these experiments aren't realistic enough to draw real conclusions:

Like other “experimental economists,” he tries to examine questions of morality by testing how people respond when presented with hypothetical dilemmas or computer simulations—showing, for instance, that in experimental conditions, people figure out ways to cooperate, or penalize other participants they think are cheating. But although this might help demonstrate how cultural institutions originate, it’s fallacious to conclude, as Wilson seems to, that these reactions constitute morality. To do that is like observing a poorly tended garden and drawing the conclusion that weeds, rotting leaves, and pest infestations are features of proper horticulture. The fact that people penalize one another for what they think is unfairness does not prove that these penalties are morally appropriate.

Stealing is wrong not merely because it likely will incur retaliation, but because it represents a self-destructive attempt to fake reality—like trying to force another person to love you. Wilson certainly is correct that property “is much more than an external check on aberrant, antisocial thievery. It comes from within as much as from without” (177), and the intimacy and naturalness of our relationships with the things we own likely is the foundation of the unique practice with which Wilson begins his book: our recognition of the fact that there are illicit ways to obtain things.
October 10, 2020

In 4.5 thousand years we still haven't formally settled on what property is. Property might exist among animals (as in defense of territory, mates and food) but the sense of morality behind a defense of property is uniquely human.

The concepts of "yours" and "mine" are also unique to human beings.

An Aristotelian framing - resting on material, formal, efficient, and final explanations.

Material explanation:

Humans have the custom of property because when our body sees, hears, and touches the physical world, it connects a certain person to a certain thing by classifying the thing as “mine.” This explanation requires physical matter, including the human body itself. Our eyes see the world of people and things, and our ears hear the things people say about things. Our minds then classify such neurological impulses and return as output an instruction to act, to say things like “This is mine.” Homo sapiens is the only animal whose mind classifies a thing as “mine.” Primatologists have good reason to believe that chimpanzees think things like “I want this,” but “I want this” does not mean the same thing as “This is mine” in the human animal, as every two-year-old learns, with great disappointment, from their parents. Mine means mine, atomically and reflexively, and it serves as the core for the custom of property in all human groups. In every language someone can say, “This is mine.”

Efficient Explanation

Two conflicting claims of “This is mine” can easily escalate to group-on-group violence which runs the risk of destroying the community. To mitigate such a disaster, humans have stumbled upon the tradition of using third parties to articulate what the expectations of the disputants should have been regarding the thing.

Property naturally flows from scarcity, otherwise there would be no conflict.

We practice the custom of property because proximately there is not a short supply of people with an equal or stronger hand who may challenge our claim of “This is mine.”


The Dissenter with Ricardo Lopes, May 7, 2021

People have property “in“ things. Tools are an extension of ourselves and every society recognizes tools as being something people can own. People also recognize that things that are obtained in a group must be shared by a group, i.e. the catch from a hunt. Whaling laws had to distinguish between parties claiming ownership of a catch. It was determined that for certain kinds of whales are pruning them was sufficient for ownership even if the whale got away and the whaling ship was in pursuit however for other kinds of whales it was not enough to have harpooned the whale it was whoever could finally get it on board. Bart Wilson says this shows how property rights are a custom

Different societies have different concepts of property as it relates to land and ideas. Most societies recognize that some kind of land i.e. the commons, cannot beyond.

The case of Pierson v. Post is classically taught in law school because it shows how courts have wrestled with these questions and honed the custom of property:

Although it only involved a dispute over which of two men deserved ownership of a fox, adjudicating the dispute required determining at what point a wild animal (traditionally known as an animal ferae naturae) becomes "property". The judges chose not to follow common law precedent on wild animal capture, and so were forced to synthesize reasoning from a variety of well-known historical legal treatises—ranging from the Institutes of Justinian in the 5th century to the writings of Henry de Bracton in the 13th century and Samuel von Pufendorf in the 17th century—into a coherent principle on how property can be first possessed by a human being.
with Kent Lassman, President, Competitive Enterprise Institute, February 11, 2021
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Ideas in Progress with Anthony Comegna, December 9, 2020
Free Thoughts with Aaron Ross Powell and Trevor Burrus, November 27, 2020
Salem Center for Policy, November 2020
The Federalist Society with Timothy Sandefur, November 17, 2020
The Curious Task with Alex Aragona, October 21, 2020
The Governance Podcast with Irena Schneider, October 15, 2018

Past Shows' Notes/Transcripts