The big idea behind Bowles’s recent research is that some of the fundamental laws of economics – notably Adam Smith’s invisible hand, may not work in the “weightless economy – the economy that can’t be weighed, fenced, or conveniently contracted for.” Rather than being based on material wealth, knowledge-based economies are based on embodied and relational wealth. In these economies, individual-posession based property rights are difficult to enforce, and socially harmful to enforce.
Jan Plooij's insight:
"A kudu is a species of antelope that hunters in the Pleistocene era used to hunt. Bowles makes a fascinating comparison between the property rights of subsistence economies that once hunted kudu, and what he calls the “weightless economy” of digital information today. Huh? Here’s Bowles’ analysis:
Millennia ago, a band of hunters in Africa might bag a kudu once a month, and be rewarded with about 160,000 edible calories of highly perishable meat. When thinking about an economy based on kudu, several significant things stand out: Kudu are quite difficult to acquire (it takes a village to hunt an animal); difficult to own privately (it’s a wild animal); and wasteful if not immediately shared (there was no refrigeration, and so the kudu would spoil unless shared among many people).
In such an economy, the culture rewards generosity toward others and a modesty about one’s personal talents in hunting. It’s a group thing. Self-aggrandizement is bad form. No one can snare a kudu by themselves, and no one can individually consume one. It makes perfect sense for an economy reliant on kudu to share and have minimal or no property rights.
Many of these norms started to change 8,000 years ago with the rise of private property, noted Bowles, especially with the domestication of animals. When there is a cow or sheep that can be owned by an individual, the idea of private property rights suddenly make more sense. One can feasibly own a cow and fence the land that the cow grazes on. In the long sweep of history, then, the idea of private property rights is fairly recent.
So what does a hunting economy have to say about our times?
Bowles proposes that the Internet has created all sorts of digital resources that are as fugitive and difficult to own as wild game on the hoof. No one can really make a software program all by themselves (it takes a lot of people to make one), and it is difficult to own software privately (because it is so easily copied and therefore very expensive to “fence in” as private property).
The Wall Street Journal recently ranked Gary Hamel as the world’s most influential business thinker, and Fortune magazine has called him “the world’s leading expert on business strategy.”
Hamel’s landmark books, which have been translated into more than 20 languages, include Competing for the Future, Leading the Revolution and The Future of Management (selected by Amazon.com as the best business book of the year). His latest book, What Matters Now, was published in 2012.
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