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Using the State to solve common resource problems?

How exactly do you transfer commons into private ownership in a fair way, even for easily divided up stuff like land?

That’s the trillion dollar question that someone asked me on a recent thread (http://blog.mises.org/archives/007152.asp#comments) regarding my suggestion that better definition and enforcement of property rights is key to addressing climate change and other environmental problems in the developing world.  I have excerpted and augmented my response here:

Libertarians do not insist that open-access resources (or common property resources/CPR) be divided up by creating individual property rights; cooperative ownership  via formal agreements or informally developed practices and customs (such those developed by Maine lobstermen, English angling clubs, indigenous peoples and Wikipedia and online communities) may work better at solving the prisoners’ dilemma issues and are just as acceptable.

But technological advances and greater demand often swamp CPR regimes, so such regimes remain vulnerable if they are not accorded legal protection. My understanding of the UK enclosures in this regard is that they were actually a legislative theft of common property by the powerful.

Can states play positive roles in solving problems? At least internally, it is rather clear that the answer is that the state works best by allowing, and providing judicial mechanisms to enforce, private transactions, and works least well when it tries to specify detailed and rigid “solutions” itself – since the government itself never has perfect information, often plays favorites and once a regulatory regime is put in place, parties have no ability to work out their differences directly with each other, but are forever in the position of trying to influence the state and in adversarial positions vis-a-vis each other.  But states can also play a positive role by disseminating information and by acting to facilitate deals between various resources users, particularly in cross-border/multi-state problems.

Elinor Ostrom is the guru of CPR regimes; anyone interested should look into her fascinating and highly-regarded work, particularly her seminal Governing the Commons (1990).

[She is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the National Academy of Sciences, and the American Philosophical Society, and a recipient of a number of prestigious awards. Her other books include Rules, Games, and Common-Pool Resources (1994); The Commons in the New Millennium: Challenges and Adaptations (2003); The Samaritan’s Dilemma: The Political Economy of Development Aid (2005); Understanding Institutional Diversity (2005); and Understanding Knowledge as a Commons: From Theory to Practice (2007).]

Here is one link to get readers started:  Elinor Ostrom et al., Revisiting the Commons: Local Lessons, Global Challenges, Science 9 April 1999: http://conservationcommons.org/media/document/docu-wyycyz.pdf

Technology seems to provide us ability to create property rights regimes in ocean fisheries.

The stickiest problems are those where the resource is located in a country where we cannot ourselves create or enforce legal rights and in the atmosphere, which no one owns and to which all have access.  Unfortunately, many libertarians don’t even want to acknowledge, much less discuss, these problems. Since they are not confined to any one country, clearly we need to coordinate with others – for which purposes our state apparatus cannot be avoided.

Reaching any kind of effective solution for problems of this type will require much more focussed attention and bridge-building (abroad and at home), and if libertarians do not want to be part of the discussion, clearly they will have little influence on the results.

[Previously posted (with some tweaks) on a recent thread (http://blog.mises.org/archives/007152.asp#comments) in response to someone who is concerned about environmental problems but is unfamiliar with Austrian approaches.]