Property can be described many ways. It can be described as a legal or moral concept. It can be thought of as an economic or political concept. However, property is fundamentally a strategy to avoid conflict that arises from competition over scarce resources. To understand property better let’s consider a game from game theory called the Hawk-Dove game also know as the War of Attrition.

In the Hawk-Dove game two players are in competition for a valued resource. Each turn a player can either share or take all. The take strategy is called hawk and the share strategy is called dove. Thus, the name of the game.

If both players share, then they share equally.  If both players take, then they fight over the resource and both lose the resource and injure each other in battle. If one shares and the other takes the taker takes all and the sharer loses the resource.

It would be best if everyone just shared and played the dove strategy. There would be no conflict. Everyone would be better off and people could live in a Rousseau inspired communist paradise.  The problem is a population of doves can be invaded by even a small population of hawks. Hawks can enter a population of pure doves and take resources at the expense of the doves, and the doves will not fight back.

Considering this it might seem the best strategy for the individual is the hawk because the dove will always lose to the hawk.  The problem with the hawk strategy is hawks get hurt from fighting each other. In populations that have lots of hawks, the hawk strategy will lose fitness to battles with other hawks.

If the game is played again and again iteratively by many players, and losing strategies are replaced with winning strategies in proportion to their success, there is an equilibrium that the population with tend to approach. That is, if there are too many hawks, the hawks will lose more fitness in battle compared to the doves.  However, if there are two many doves the doves will lose out to the taking hawks and the hawks will start to replace doves.

This seems like a dark conclusion. Maybe Thomas Hobbs was right, that in a state of nature, animals or humans battle for resources and are in a state of war with each other.

However, if it is sometimes beneficial to be a dove and other times a hawk maybe a mixed strategy would be best.  A strategy that sometimes plays as a dove but other times plays as a hawk might be a winning strategy. However any amount of hawk vs. hawk interactions will decrease the overall fitness of the whole population. So a mixed strategy that reduced the probability of conflict would be great.

One such mixed strategy is called the bourgeois strategy. This strategy plays like a hawk when they are the incumbent owner of the resource and plays like a dove if they are an interloper.

Bourgeois will take from doves if the bourgeois are the incumbent owners. However the bourgeois will share with doves when the dove is incumbent. Bourgeois will fight with hawks if the bourgeois is the incumbent and yield to the hawk if the hawk is incumbent.

John Maynard Smith called this strategy the bourgeois because it is the behaviour of property.  I call this strategy the “property strategy”.

Fundamentally property is the behaviour of yielding to incumbent owners and defending one’s own incumbent ownership against interlopers.

Similar to how if all players adopt the dove strategy there is no conflict, if all players adopt the bourgeois strategy there would also be no conflict. This is because when all players are bourgeois interlopers always yield to incumbents. Yet, even if there are hawks in the population, fitness loss to battling can be minimized, by only fighting when protecting ownership.  The bourgeois punish hawks for taking owned resources.  So this strategy avoids unnecessary conflict without allowing the hawks to take all the resources.

Because, the bourgeois strategy avoids conflict it does better than a pure hawk strategy. Yet because, the bourgeois strategy will not let a hawk take all, it does better than dove when hawks are around. The bourgeois strategy is compatible with dove yet can’t be easily invaded by hawks. So bourgeois is evolutionary stable.  It is what game theorists call an Evolutionary Stable Strategy or ESS.  This means there is a good chance for the property strategy to naturally emerge and remain stable in response to conflict over scarce resource.

We can observe this strategy in territorial animals like red-winged blackbirds, or even animals as primitive as butterflies. See the article Property is Not Just a Social Construct.

Because the property strategy reduces conflict that occurs over scarce resources it is a successful strategy for individuals.  It also  benefits the population as a whole since the overall reduction of conflict is a gain for everyone.

This game theory model helps explain why we see the behaviour of property in animals, even primitive ones and why property has emerged and often persists in human societies, even without central authorities.

It also shows how important property is in reducing conflict. This is just one of the ways property is a benefit to society.

To read more on property see, Emergence of Individual Property Rights Among Humans.


Game Theory 101: The Hawk-Dove Game by William Spaniel

The logic of asymmetric contests by J. Maynard Smith, G.A. Parker