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A Political Analysis of Property Rights

William Blomquist

Noviembre 2011, inglés

In this paper, William Blomquist provides a positive political treatment of property rights. His approach supplements standard political-economic accounts of property rights that combine a simple story of property rights emerging from conditions of scarcity (rising demand relative to supply) with empirical assessments of why and how certain property regimes emerge at certain times and places, along with normative critiques of existing property structures based on public choice analysis. Blomquist endeavors to supplement political-economic explanations of property with a more realistic assessment of the role of politics in the evolution of private property. A political approach to property rights is concerned with, in an elaboration on Lasswell’s (1958) famous phrase, who gets to decide (and according to what criteria) “who gets what, when, how.” To resolve that issue, Blomquist focuses on how property rules are developed and changed over time in settings involving multiple actors, multiple resource use values, and multiple rule-making arenas.

Empirical examples relating to water resources demonstrate how basic conceptions of specific property rights can be associated with various water resource uses, including, for example, navigation, hydropower, recreation, waste disposal, and aesthetics. He then explains the ways in which resource use issues (or conflicts) are framed in political situations to influence inclusion or exclusion of certain participants and the choice of decision-making arenas. In every case, however, the outcomes are contingent and subject to being recontested, overruled, or contradicted on appeal. One important implication is that property rights are never settled for once and for all. In other words, they are never completely “well-defined,” which is a condition that much of the property rights literature presupposes as necessary to secure investment. Blomquist illustrates these points with a description of developments in Colorado water law, where traditional holders of property rights, including agriculture and municipal/industrial supply, have focused on protecting their interests in courts based on legal precedents, while proponents of legal recognition of recreational uses and instream flows have taken their case to other decision-making arenas, including the legislature, administrative agencies, and public referenda.

Beyond the obvious point that water law is complex and dynamic, his analysis shows that (1) individuals compete not only for the same rights but for different rights in the same resource; (2) a multifunctional resource multiplies the types of use rights over which individuals compete; and (3) a multiorganizational policy arena not only multiplies the number of decision points but also affects the strategies of interested parties. He suggests that the quest for any kind of simple theory of property institutions is likely to be fruitless. After all, he asks, how often would we expect to find a resource that has only one dimension of value and only one use, entitlements to which are determined by a single decision-maker in a single forum for once and for all? A more realistic theory of property must account for the dynamic political nature of ongoing contests between competing users of multiple-use resources.

This paper was presented at the Lincoln Institute’s conference entitled “Evolution of Property Rights Related to Land and Natural Resources” in 2010 and is Chapter 12 of the book Property in Land and Other Resources, edited by Daniel H. Cole and Elinor Ostrom.