Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Mini-Review: Anthony Scott, "The Evolution of Resource Property Rights"

Antony Scott, Professor Emeritus at the University of British Columbia, is one of the pioneers of resource economics, having done fundamental work on fisheries in the 1950s. In 2008 Oxford University Press published his maxim opus, The Evolution of Resource Property Rights, which not only sums up but expands on the work of his entire career.

Interestingly, it is a book that seems designed to appeal more to legal scholars than mainstream economists. Each chapter explores in remarkable depth the wide array of legal institutions that have evolved in different polities - sometimes over the course of several centuries - to govern the extraction, possession, use, and disposition of resources as varied as water, fish, hard-rock minerals, oil & gas, trees, and wildlife. In addition, Chapter 1 of the book provides a useful conceptual introduction to the field, which provides a context for understanding individual chapters and sections devoted to different resource regimes.

What I found most impressive about the book was Professor Scott's attention to legal detail, unusual for a resource economist. This book could have been written by a legal historian (which I mean as a compliment). The treatment of the legal regimes that create private property rights in natural resources is truly comprehensive. But I highlight the word "private" as a prelude to my only disappointment about the book, which is its relative neglect of public and common property systems, to which Professor Scott gives only token attention.

It is, perhaps, understandable that Professor Scott would focus primarily on private property rights in natural resources; the book is approximately 500 pages long as it is. However, I think a more appropriate title might have been "the evolution of private property rights in resources in Europe, the US, and Commonwealth Countries." There is virtually no discussion of resource property regimes from Africa, Asia, or South America. This does not detract, however, from the book's great value as a resource on property regimes in resources, so long as the reader is under no illusions that the book's coverage of the subject area is complete.

I am very pleased that Professor Scott will be participating in the conference Elinor Ostrom and I are co-organizing for the Lincoln Institute on Land Policy this September on the "Evolution of Property Rights Related to Land and Natural Resources" (see here).

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