Free trade and property rights come naturally

THOSE who dislike the idea of individual freedom often accuse its proponents of dishing up just as artificial a plan for the human race as that offered by social planners. “There’s no such thing as a free market,” they say. “It’s all culturally determined.”

It’s nice then to find some evidence from the psychologist Ori Friedman from the University of Waterloo in Canada that begs to disagree. Friedman’s findings indicate that children as young as four or five have a natural respect for property rights, indicating an innate sense of private ownership. Culture can distort that, of course. But the default setting of humanity seems to be pro-individual, suspicious of the idea that someone bigger can just come in and grab something a person owns in the name of a claimed greater good.

The experiment is simple enough: two pictures are shown, one of a boy holding a crayon with the word “user” above it; one of a girl, with the word “owner” above it. The question is, if the girl wants her crayon back, should she get it? Three quarters of four and five year olds give a resounding yes. Rather more distressingly, only a fifth of adults given the same test agree.

By contrast if you repeat the experiment but say that the crayon is owned by their school and the girl has no special claim on it, both adults and children agree that the user has fair dibs.

Friedman suggests that “a concept of ownership rights may be a product of the way we naturally think early in life,” and that it perhaps grows out of how children think about their bodies and the fact that no one has a right to touch or control them without permission. If so, they agree with John Locke’s famous formulation, that “everyman has a property in his own person. This no body has any right to but himself. The labour of his body, and the work of his hands, we may say, are properly his.”

In truth, the argument that there is nothing natural about free exchange or property rights has always been specious. Adam Smith was hardly the first to observe the human propensity to “truck, barter, and exchange one thing for another,” but we do ourselves a disservice when we ignore how rare a quality this is. Even among hominids, it is an exceptional trait. One of the reasons why the neanderthal fork of our evolutionary tree died out may well have been the inability of neanderthals to trade. Trade relies on both a sophisticated theory of mind, the ability to see that another person may want something you do not, and may also be willing to give up something you covet in return. It relies too on a robust concept of property. If no one owns anything, then exchange is meaningless. In a world of property rights, trade emerges as an alternative to force.

But natural gifts can be squandered if they are not appreciated. And a creature born to freedom can still find itself everywhere in chains. The frightening aspect of Friedman’s experiment is not the liberal instincts of the young, but the illiberal adults it reveals. We grow up and we choose our lives, but if we forget the values our own nature teaches us, we reject our most precious birthright.

First published: City A.M., 3/2/12

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Filed under Economics, Freedom, Human nature, Science

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