17 February 2008
Imagine a mode of ownership based on distributional generosity. If it works in the Kalahari desert, who are we to say it couldn't work in more resource-rich environments?
According to anthropologist Richard B. Lee in The Dobe !Kung (1984, sic), the San people (a group of bushmen hunter and gatherers) of the Kalahari desert in Botswana heed the following rule in distributing meat slain in hunting:
"The owner of the arrow is the owner of the meat."
If your arrow slays the animal, you own the meat. The key to this amazingly simple rule is that for the San people, "ownership" means the right to distribute the meat to the village and beyond--not to do whatever one pleases with it.
But before considering the merits of ownership as the right (and responsibility) to give, first imagine what would happen if this wonderfully simple ownership rule were enacted possessively, in a winner-take-all scenario. Disaster could follow: angry and hungry men carrying loaded weapons would start fighting over whose arrow went in first. Fresh arrows would follow. Clashes over meat ownership could arise: whether it was the first arrow to strike or the deathblow to an animal, and how to assess either. Disputes could be settled rationally but, as reason tends to do, it could become complicated very quickly. In a few generations, the San people may be saddled with some body of property law adolescent to modern-day mass of property law. By the way, according to page 727 of the 2006 Intellectual Property Primary Law Sourcebook, the Director (presumably of a Patent Office: I don't care enough to find out) is bound by law, when not specified otherwise, to charge $ .25 per page photocopied in preparing patents. Our law can be obese in reasonable detail, a testament to the opulence of our society: we graze some of our best analytic minds on fields of minutia.
But things don't get bad in the Kalahari. Instead, the hunters exchange arrows for portions of carcasses slain through trade networks between and within villages. "Give me an arrow," hunters say to one another, "and if I kill something with it, I will give some meat to you." And then--the best part--they do it and they expect one another to follow in kind, despite the many grumbles. They share even when it hurts--giving fresh meat immediately or dried meat months later, as hunting and trade conditions allow--not because of some exotic configuration of soul but because surviving in their subsistence societies demands it of them.
Not only do hunters share meat with other arrow owning hunters, they share all the meat with their families, their villages, and other groups over which they have responsibility. The full balance of the hunt is for sharing. The widespread distribution of arrow sharing also helps level out significant differences in hunter abilities, and here some of my questions about how the San people balance incentives to hunt and to free ride on the efforts of others will have to wait. Oh, on a related point, Lee (p. 48-50) also develops in more detail how the villagers take considerable effort to put down and minimize the success of hunters. "Oh, you made us come all the way out here for that pile of skin and bones," helpers say to a hunter who landed an animal too large to carry home, and without sarcasm. The point: possessive ownership rewards possessive egos; distributional ownership rewards distributional egos, or egos spread flat by their neighbors. Arrogance may be one of our more unfortunate and less considered economic ways of life.
Imagine, for a moment, that the ownership rule for the jungle lush in non-scarce wildlife we call online commerce were "the owner of the source is the owner of the meat." This raises plenty of concerns to think through another night. (Consider distributional royalties across multiple-authors and multiple sources, or the many ways that creative work online isn't like hunting in the Kalahari, despite the trade network similarities.) But until then, at least the law books would be simpler.