Thursday, August 7, 2008

The Anticommons: So Hot Right Now

Michael Heller's new book, The Gridlock Economy, is suddenly the book du jour. The book is about the tragedy of the anticommons, which occurs when too many people own property rights in a particular resource. James Surowieki describes the essence of the anticommons problem succinctly: "If too many people own individual parts of a valuable asset, it’s easy to end up with gridlock, since any one person can simply veto the use of the asset." Heller coined the term "anticommons" in a famous 1998 Harvard Law Review article. Since more people are likely to become interested in the anticommons in the next few weeks, they should probably know where to go to learn more about the anticommons. Heller's Harvard Law Review article is of course a good resource, but far and away the best article on the anticommons is Common Interest Tragedies, by University of Chicago law professor Lee Anne Fennell. The depth of analysis is unmatched in the anticommons literature. Fennell is, in my mind, the smartest law professor in the country, bar none. (Contrary to popular belief in law schools, Heller didn't "discover" the anticommons in his Harvard Law Review paper; the prototypical example of an anticommons is really just a regular commons with prohibitively high transaction costs. I think the anticommons is an incredibly useful framework that rightly puts transaction costs at its center, but it wasn't really a breakthrough in economic thought or anything. Someone needs to tell this to Larry Lessig, who pushes the limits of hyperbole when he writes that Heller's anticommons idea will "reorient many fields. . . . Paradigms will shift. Many of them." Easy there Lessig. Why don't you sit the next one out, okay champ?)



Cool down some.

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