Tuesday, April 01, 2008

The Propensity to 'Truck, Barter, and Exchange' Has a Long Lineage

Arnold Kling asserts that ‘Economics Appears Late’, not early in our history as a species on the bookmarkable EconLog (‘issues and insights in economics’ (here:)

In economics, perhaps Adam Smith was wrong in claiming a universal propensity to truck and barter. A universal propensity to engage in exchanges with friends and family. In Alan Page Fiske's terminology, there is a universal propensity for communal sharing, for equality matching, and for hierarchical control. But trading among strangers in competitive markets is not so universal.

My view is that historically there was a universal propensity for plunder and coercion. It could be that only in the late stages of the British empire, around the time that Adam Smith was writing, that people really began to be accustomed to market economic activity.’

I would suggest that Arnold Kling (and Tyler Cowen) read (if they have not yet done so) Morris Silver’s, Economic Structures in Antiquity’ (Greenwood Press, 1995), which also includes his studied demolition of Karl Polanyi’s thesis that markets did not exist until the mid-19th century (originally published in the Journal of Economic History, 1983).

Silver also wrote other articles and books that demonstrate the prevalence of the ‘propensity to truck, barter, and trade’ across the classical world and long before.

My own research (unpublished) on the ‘Pre-History of Bargaining’ supports Adam Smith’s speculative assertion on the longevity of the said propensity, and its earlier evolution from teamwork for unequal shares of meat from kills to reciprocity behaviour (what I call quasi-bargains) evident not just among humans –and presumably the hominids before them – and in the behaviours of primates.

I am reading just now a most valuable book bordering on these issues, edited by Paul J. Zak, Moral Markets: the critical role of values in the economy (Princeton University Press), which develops themes contributing to an understanding of the social-evolutionary importance of humans establishing the criteria by which fairness and unfairness is mediated in primate and human relationships.

Now most economists reading Blogs by other economists would never dream of reading such material (the maths is minimal), but if they did it would inform them of greater depth in what they think they are doing practicing economics they way we do now.


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