Undercover Economist

Fairness is shared by our environment

‘The idea that hard work needs to be rewarded is a farmer’s view. The claim that “we’re all in this together” is hunter-thinking’

In the early 1980s, the anthropologist Hilly Kaplan visited Paraguay to study a hunter-gatherer tribe called the Aché. He found a moral code that, by western standards, seemed too good to be true: Aché hunters shared with open hands, giving away 90 per cent of their meat and 80 per cent of the grubs and fruit they gathered. The Aché believed that a hunter who ate his own kill would be cursed.

As the years passed, Kaplan saw this sharing culture disappear. The rainforest was being hacked back, so the Aché found that foraging would no longer sustain them. They put down roots – literally – and began to farm. And as they started farming, they stopped sharing.

This sad story makes perfect sense. Hunters have enormously volatile incomes: one day they may catch more than they can possibly eat; the next day, nothing. Kaplan discovered that Aché hunters came home empty-handed slightly more often than not. At such a strike rate a hunter would expect to do without food for an entire week about once every year.

Even a skilled hunter is largely at the mercy of good or bad luck – but others in the tribe may have better luck on the same day. It’s easy to see why a strong tradition of sharing might have arisen.

Farmers, by contrast, are less exposed to individual luck. Bad weather will probably affect neighbouring farms too, so there’s less to be gained from pooling risks. And there’s much to be lost: insurers invented the term “moral hazard” to describe cases where people are lazy or careless because they know they’re insured. Sharing encourages scroungers.

So maybe views of fairness are shaped by the environment in which we find ourselves. Hunters value sharing; farmers value self-sufficiency through hard work. Both are admirable virtues and both are appropriate to the situation.

Kaplan teamed up with other researchers, including Vernon L Smith, a winner of the Nobel memorial prize for economics, to test this idea. They concluded that sharing accompanies “unsynchronized variance in resource availability” – researcher-speak for “You never know who’ll be next to bag a monkey.”

Megan McArdle, in her fascinating forthcoming book The Up Side of Down, observes that modern societies can’t make up their minds whether to adopt the morality of farmers or of hunters. The idea that hard work needs to be rewarded is a farmer’s view of fairness. The claim that “we’re all in this together” is hunter-thinking.

Mostly, we seem to think like farmers. The government does tax and redistribute but spending on roads, police or the army isn’t redistribution. The National Health Service is probably the most prominent, beloved and well-funded expression of hunter morality we have – after all, anyone can fall sick without warning. But an Aché-style tax rate of 80 or 90 per cent for all seems unimaginable.

Economic success in the modern world requires tenacity and talent. It also requires luck. Perhaps it’s not surprising, then, that our moral intuitions straddle the fence between farmer and hunter.

But there’s something different about 21st-century luck – it tends to last far longer than a day. Accidents of parentage are important. So is timing: people who graduate during a recession experience years of depressed earnings after missing the perfect window to step on to the career ladder. Experimenters have sent thousands of CVs to prospective employers and shown that “farmer virtues” – a high-quality degree or relevant business experience – seem less important than your skin colour or the length of time you’ve been unemployed.

The importance of luck in the modern economy might push us towards the fair-shares-for-all morality of the hunter. But if the lucky know they can stay lucky for a lifetime, why share at all?

Also published at ft.com.