The Evolution of Resource Property Rights. Anthony Scott. 2008. Oxford University Press, UK, 557 pp. ISBN 978-0-19-828603-5.
Some explanation is needed for review of a book that was published four years ago. The review was delayed by the untimely passing of Professor John Gates, the previous book review editor of this journal. However, a book like this withstands the attrition of time, so four years is, indeed, not too late.
Much has been written about the instrumentality of property rights; how certain types of property rights, more than others, promote economic growth and efficiency. This book is not that kind. It is a historical study of the evolution of property rights. Property rights change because some people see their interests better served by a new arrangement, and their demands are met by those who pass or interpret the law. From this evolutionary perspective it could be tempting to conclude that what is fittest also survives, but the book makes no such judgment; its purpose is to explain and to understand, and it allows for the possibility that evolution could go in the "wrong" direction.
In the first chapter, Scott develops his concepts of property rights characteristics: exclusivity, duration, flexibility, quality of title, transferability, and divisibility. They are not new to the literature, and many authors have found them useful in their analysis of property rights, not least in the fisheries context. Yet most of this chapter is an erudite discussion of property rights development in English law. This is seen as an interaction between demanders and suppliers. The focus is on suppliers; that is, the lawmakers and the courts. The time perspective is long, back to the Norman Conquest, and the emphasis is on changing needs and shifting response from suppliers and even competition between them.
Scott then turns to examining property rights for specific resources. He looks at three classes of resources; fugacious resources (fish and water), mineral resources, and forests. He makes the interesting point that the absence of individual property rights in fugacious resources foreclosed an important avenue to develop characteristics of property rights for such resources; much of the development of property rights to land was driven by the courts, which interpreted and reinterpreted existing rights. However for fugacious resources there were none such and hence, nothing to interpret. Nevertheless governments increasingly came to regulate fugacious resources, and the development towards property rights in these resources, such as there is, can be fruitfully seen as...