NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Unselfish Capitalism

April 19, 2002

Capitalism has been criticized for centuries for its single-minded pursuit of self-interest. It is often claimed that pastoral and agrarian societies foster social cooperation and sharing, while industrial societies promote materialism and greed.

But scientists who actually tested these assertions found that people raised in market economies are more trusting and willing to share than those raised in most preindustrial cultures.

Over two years, 11 anthropologists and an economist conducted experiments in diverse cultures, including three hunting-and-foraging societies, six slash-and-burn agricultural communities, four nomadic-herding groups and two farm villages.

People from these groups played the same economic games that had been extensively tested on college students in developed countries. In an "ultimatum" game, a player divided a sum of money (or cigarettes or other valuable goods) between himself an anonymous partner, who could accept the division -- in which case both received that amount -- or reject it, in which case neither got anything. The results reveal concepts of fairness and the degree of trust.

  • Peruvian forest dwellers, for example, usually offered 15 percent to 25 percent of the pot -- and responders agreed to nearly all offers, even below 15 percent.
  • Hazda hunter-gatherers made similarly low offers, but responders usually rejected them.
  • In contrast, American undergraduates usually tender 30 percent to 40 percent of the total, and most responders reject anything below 20 percent.
  • And in another "trust" game, people in a rural Missouri town usually ended up with equal shares.

"Industrialized nations promote a stronger ethic of fairness than do many of the traditional societies," says anthropologist Joseph Henrich. And, suggests economist Colin Camerer, "The opportunity to trade in economic markets may create social expectations about sharing and trust that exist over and above individual decisions and motivations...."

Source: Bruce Bower, "A Fair Share of the Pie," Science News, February 16, 2002.


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