Spontaneous Emergence of Property Rights in the Classroom

Last week I posted about Bart Wilson’s talk on his new book “The Property Species” and promised to share a class demonstration about the emergence of property rights in the classroom. But first let me tell you why I did this demonstration.

When I was a student I hated assignments that go through the motions of learning, but provide no learing. Building a paper maché volcano, while fun for some, teaches little about volcanic eruptions. Shaking and opening a soda bottle (pop?) is more instructive: it’s the fall in pressure as the bottle is opened that leads to the rapid release of the gas disolved in the liquid, the same thing happens to magma. And while being able to algebraically solve for the equilibrium price given supply and demand functions is a very necessary evil (to a point), it teaches little about the process of competition and price formation.

This is why I was reluctant to having my first Intro to Economics class write their own version of “I pencil”, quite a few years ago. Driving the point of how largely anonymous exchange and specialization, coordinated peacefully through property, prices, and profits and loss makes the modern world possible is very important. But how much can you really learn about this by watching and transcribing an episode of “How It’s Made”? For most students, not much at all. Partly in dread of reading and grading 80 versions of “I whiteboard marker”, or “I toothbrush”, and partly following my conscience I decided to throw in a twist.

The twist may seem evil and arbitrary at first. Students still had to choose a good and write their own version of “I _____” , but if two students wrote about the same good I would divide their grade by 2. If three students wrote about the same good I would divide their grade by 3 and so on. I did not give any additional prompts about how they should sort out potential conflicts or coordinate amongst themselves. These were just the rules of the assignment.

Without this seemingly arbitrary grading rule, goods to write about were not scarce. By changing the grading rules, goods to write about became scarce. While there are many more goods to write about than students, certain goods stand out in the mind, and extra effort must be devoted in thinking up a new good, and finding out if someone had already looked around their room and chosen the same good. Now students also had to coordinate amongst themselves or run the risk of a fairly severe penalty to their grade.

As expected, I have never had to enforce the the harsh grading penalties (anecdotal, I know). Students always find a way to coordinate and establish property rights over suddenly scarce goods. The point of the assignment was no longer about I pencil, but about the emergence of property rights and social coordination (and hopefully a little bit about I pencil as well). I didn’t act as a central authority that imposed and enforced property rights. I merely changed the incentives and constraints, hoping that the costs of coordinating and setting up agreements was smaller than the costs of not doing this.

When they turned in their assignment, we discussed how they had actually coordinated. Over the years I have seen multiple ingenious mechanisms. From class forums using the university platform, to a simple spreadsheet circulated amongst the students via email or WhatsApp. In the good old times before the pandemic they would sometimes meet after class and sort it out in person. Sometimes they created a common pool of goods and one of their classmates is chosen to distribute them among their peers. Leaders emerge to fill various roles from dispute resolution to registering claims. How this person is chosen also varies from class to class. Some students volunteer, others have it thrust upon themselves. The use of a homesteading rule is fairly common, first to choose gets the good in cases where there are multiple claims. In class we discuss why they use this rule, rather than last to choose gets the good, and the problems this alternative would entail.

I have only had one instance of a strong and contested dispute among “property owners”. That semester students had to not only write but present their work. Two groups (that semester “I _____” was a group assignment) wanted to do a good they thought would be amusing to present in class. I’ll leave it up to your imagination what good students in their late teens and early twenties might find to be amusing to present in class. The two groups of students underwent a rather complicated dispute resolution system with the rest of the class playing the role of arbiters of the multiple claims to the same good. Neither group wanted to budge, but one group ended up ceding the rights in the end.

What I like about this little classroom demonstration is that it makes it easier to teach the emergence of institutions as the products of human action but not human design. Order without design is a difficult concept to grasp, but maybe even more importantly it is a concept that is difficult to accept. But after this demonstration, not anymore, students experience the emergence of property rights. An added bonus is that in this case scarcity is clearly a product of the relation between their minds and how they relate to the world, not about objective quantities of goods.

Property rights emerge through their coordination but are not centrally imposed. They coordinate because a change in the environment turned a previously free good, the subject of their short “I ____” essay, into a scarce (economic) good. As you can probably tell Harold Demsetz is one of my favorite economists of all time. After the barrier of disbelief is breached, we can easily talk about the spontaneous emergence of money, cover a little about how property rights emerged in whaling on the high seas, and the spontaneous origin of law (very useful for future law students usually educated in the positivist tradition, as is the norm in Ecuador).

I later learned of the fish game (I am not an experimentalist). But, no disrespect intended, it seems a little contrived. I still like my assignment better. While the goldfish game teaches the tragedy of the commons, the “I _____” assignment teaches how the tragedy can be solved without a centralized authority by having students solve if for themselves and come to grips with the real limitations and problems they faced, albeit on a much smaller scale. I am still hoping for an experimentalist that thinks something serious can be made out of my little classroom demonstration.