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The Tragedy of the Anticommons: Property in the Transition from Marx to Markets

Michael A. Heller
Harvard Law Review
Vol. 111, No. 3 (Jan., 1998), pp. 621-688
DOI: 10.2307/1342203
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/1342203
Page Count: 68
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The Tragedy of the Anticommons: Property in the Transition from Marx to Markets
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Abstract

Why are many storefronts in Moscow empty, while street kiosks in front are full of goods? In this Article, Professor Heller develops a theory of anticommons property to help explain the puzzle of empty storefronts and full kiosks. Anticommons property can be understood as the mirror image of commons property. By definition, in a commons, multiple owners are each endowed with the privilege to use a given resource, and no one has the right to exclude another. When too many owners hold such privileges of use, the resource is prone to overuse - a tragedy of the commons. Depleted fisheries and overgrazed fields are canonical examples of this familiar tragedy. In an anticommons, according to this Article, multiple owners are each endowed with the right to exclude others from a scarce resource, and no one has an effective privilege of use. When too many owners hold such rights of exclusion, the resource is prone to underuse - a tragedy of the anticommons. Empty Moscow storefronts are a canonical example of the tragedy of underuse. Anticommons property may appear whenever governments define new property rights in both post-socialist and developed market economies. Once an anticommons emerges, collecting rights into usable private property bundles can be brutal and slow. The difficulties of overcoming a tragedy of the anticommons suggest that policymakers should pay more attention to the content of property bundles, rather than focusing just on the clairty of rights.

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