The Anticommons

Can “too much ownership” cause gridlock and the “underuse and waste” of resourses?:

The Permission Problem, by James Surowiecki: In the second decade of the twentieth century, it was almost impossible to build an airplane in the United States. That was the result of a chaotic legal battle among the dozens of companies—including one owned by Orville Wright—that held patents on the various components that made a plane go. No one could manufacture aircraft without fear of being hauled into court. The First World War got the industry started again, because Congress realized that something needed to be done to get planes in the air. It created a “patent pool,” putting all the aircraft patents under the control of a new association and letting manufacturers license them for a fee. Had Congress not stepped in, we might still be flying around in blimps.

The situation that grounded the U.S. aircraft industry is an example of what the Columbia law professor Michael Heller, in his new book, “The Gridlock Economy,” calls the “anticommons.” We hear a lot about the “tragedy of the commons”: if a valuable asset (a grazing field, say) is held in common, each individual will try to exploit as much of it as possible. Villagers will send all their cows out to graze at the same time, and soon the field will be useless. When there’s no ownership, the pursuit of individual self-interest can make everyone worse off. But Heller shows that having too much ownership creates its own problems. 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.

The commons leads to overuse and destruction; the anticommons leads to underuse and waste. … Even divided land ownership can have unforeseen consequences. Wind power, for instance, could reliably supply up to twenty per cent of America’s energy needs—but only if new transmission lines were built, allowing the efficient movement of power… Don’t count on that happening anytime soon. Most of the land that the grid would pass through is owned by individuals, and nobody wants power lines running through his back yard.

The point isn’t that private property is a bad thing, or that the state should be able to run roughshod over the rights of individual owners. Property rights (including patents) are essential… But property rights need to be limited to be effective. The more we divide common resources like science and culture into small, fenced-off lots, Heller shows, the more difficult we make it for people to do business and to build something new. Innovation, investment, and growth end up being stifled. …

In theory, one should be able to break a gridlock by striking a deal that would leave all sides better off. Sometimes that happens. … [But…] One reason deals founder is that there are simply too many interested parties. If, in order to create a new drug, you have to strike bargains with thirty or forty other companies… often things go awry because owners won’t make a deal at a reasonable price…

Recent experimental work by the psychologist Sven Vanneste and the legal scholar Ben Depoorter helps explain why. When something you own is necessary to the success of a venture, even if its contribution is small, you’ll tend to ask for an amount close to the full value of the venture. And since everyone in your position also thinks he deserves a huge sum, the venture quickly becomes unviable. So the next time we start handing out new ownership rights—whether via patents or copyright or privatization schemes—we’d better try to weigh all the good things that won’t happen as a result. Otherwise, we won’t know what we’ve been missing.

Originally published at Economist’s View and reproduced here with the author’s permission