Friday, June 24, 2011

Property rights and natural resources

It is a firmly established conventional wisdom that natural resources are best preserved when there are well established property rights. It is the quintessential example of the tragedy of the commons that if everyone is allowed, say, to take water, water will be over-exploited. This wisdom takes, however, a crucial assumption: that once the resources is taken, property rights are well established and uncontestable. What would happen if not?

Louis Hotte, Randy McFerrin and Douglas Wills show that reverting this assumption can have a dramatic impact. Suppose that you took a freely available resource, but that now anyone can contest your ownership of that resource. Depending on the consequences, you may not want to extract in the first place. It thus matters in which way the state is weak. If it is weak in that it gives away rights to natural resources, then there will be over-exploitation. If it is weak in that it cannot enforce property rights in general, and in particular when it comes to bring product to the market, then it is the Wild West and under-exploitation may ensue. Theft is a powerful mechanism to kill markets.

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