I’ve previously hypothesized that the persistence of legal rules that lead to less overall wealth but seemingly more equitable distributions (rules such as the insider trading ban and Regulation FD) may stem from the fact that individuals are “hard-wired” to favor fairness, even if they must sacrifice some wealth to achieve it. That seems to be one of the lessons of the Ultimatum Game, in which offerees routinely sacrifice wealth in order to protest proposed allocations they deem to be unfair. (I describe the Ultimatum Game in the post linked above.)
I also observed that there are reasons to believe there’s an evolutionary basis for this taste for fairness (and willingness to pay for it). Primatologists have observed that monkeys trained to exchange a pebble for a cucumber slice (a very good deal for the monkeys!) will quit making such beneficial exchanges if they observe other monkeys receiving more favorable treatment, such as a yummy grape for the pebble. The put-upon monkeys are apparently willing to suffer a wealth loss in order to protest what they perceive to be an inequitable outcome. Thus, I argued, there appears to be some evolutionary basis for the results of the Ultimatum Game.
So what am I to make of new research showing that chimpanzees playing the Ultimatum Game will not reject “unfair” offers? The chimps appear to take the seemingly rational view that it’s better to have some wealth, even if others get an unfairly large portion, than to have no wealth.
Wonder what a society of chimps would make of John Edwards’ candidacy?
(HT: Mizzou Law alumnus, Evan Fitts)