The Economy of the Planet of the Apes

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I saw this vandalized movie poster the other day, and I tried to be funny on Twitter (something about anti-consumerist primates, about Caesar not wanting his struggle to be commodified by the movie industry).

But this got me thinking. Assuming that the apes do take over our planet, what kind of economy are they likely to create? I’m not happy with the movie answers to this question. The movies – both the original sixties movies and the new rebooted series – depict an unconvincing economic image of ape ascendance. In both movie series the apes become clever enough to acquire human knowledge and to potentially adopt human practices and institutions, including the human economy. But they don’t.

In the rebooted series the apes seem not particularly interested in becoming the new humans, perhaps understandably. They’ve returned to the woods near San Francisco in the second movie, and they’re clearly not going to just continue the human economy based on capitalist production and trade. They seem clever enough to do this, but they either lack the will or the incentives to use their new intelligence to acquire the knowledge, the science, the technology, the institutions and the behaviors necessary to recreate a capitalist economy. In the original movies, the apes have created a primitive, pre-industrial caste-like system based on human slavery.

Either scenario seems unlikely. After all, if the apes have human level intelligence, why not use it in a better way? In the rebooted series the apes seem to have no desire to use their new knowledge and improve their economy. Pre-ascendance, apes had (or should I say “have”) no significant agriculture or other types of economic production, no surplus to trade, and no means of exchange. They were (“are”) essentially hunter-gatherers. Why put up with all the risks inherent in keeping such a fragile economic model if you’ve recently gained enough units of intelligence sufficient to improve it? The apes in the rebooted series resist the temptation of retribution (apart from some skirmishes – these are action-movies after all). They’re not interested in subjugating the humans and creating a human-slave economy as they do in the older movies. They want to stay in the forest and keep the humans out. They want to remain essentially ape-like in their behavior, if not their knowledge.

This extreme case of status quo bias seems an unlikely course of action after a major and sudden shift in levels of intelligence. And the actions of the apes in the original series are just as hard to understand. They have human-like intelligence and yet they decide that they want a vindictive system of pre-industrial slavery. Good for the storylines of the movies, but bad for long-term viability and productivity. And hard to understand given the fact that we are led to assume that they should know better.

There’s an article here starting from Austrian economics to make the not entirely convincing point that apes can be both highly intelligent and still remain hunter-gatherers. The argument goes like this: apes, even or especially intelligent ones, must remain hunter-gatherers for some time because sudden agriculturalization or industrialization of their economy would likely turn out to be immensely harmful and even disastrous in the short term. Everyone would starve. You need capital, time and sufficient stocks of supplies to create the institutions necessary for industrialization. I’m not convinced. If the apes do take over, they can also take over the stocks, tools and other forms of capital created by humans. They don’t have to industrialize from scratch.

If neither the movies nor Austrian economics help us to flesh out the unlikely future economy in a world ruled by apes, can we perhaps turn to primatology? We do know a lot about current ape behavior. Assuming that this behavior doesn’t entirely go away with intelligence enhancement, what can it tell us? One of the things we know, such as primates’ fondness of reciprocity and sharing, their inequity aversion and use of altruistic punishment would suggest a mixed economy with a strong welfare state, or even communism. Other things, however, such as the often strong competitive forces at play in primate groups, would suggest a very unencumbered free market economy. (There have been successful efforts to introduce currency into monkey economies). But then again, maybe the original movies were correct: strong primate group hierarchy points to more traditional economic models. So it would seem that our future of ape dominance is up for grabs. Maybe we will indeed be reduced to human slaves in a strictly hierarchical pre-industrial society. Or maybe the apes will join the WTO.

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