Property Rights Economics — Mark I and Mark II
| Nicolai Foss |
In modern standard economics, property rights as an analytical category are mainly associated with the work of Oliver Hart, largely because of his important work, with Sanford Grossman, John Moore and others, on asset ownership in the context of the boundaries of the firm (the pioneering paper is here). Many modern (younger) economists don’t seem to know of the older property rights tradition, associated with Coase, Alchian, Demsetz, Cheung, Barzel, Furubotn, Umbeck, Alston, Libecap, Eggertson et al. Given the prevalent Whig interpretation of the evolution of economic theory, one may be led to the belief that the modern approach superseded or incorporated everything that was sound in the older, verbal approach, while advancing property rights thinking in rigorous game-theoretical terms.
With a frequent co-author, I have penned a paper, “Coasian and Modern Property Rights Economics: A Case of Kuhnian Lost Content,” that argues that such a view is false. In fact, we argue that there has been something akin to a Kuhnian “loss of content” (Kuhn, 1996) in the move from Mark I to Mark II property rights economics. What we call “property rights economics Mark II” is a more narrow approach in terms of the phenomena that are investigated, namely why it matters who owns the asset(s) in a relation that spans at least two stage of production in a value chain. In contrast, “property rights economics Mark I” was taken up with the complex and contingent nature of real ownership arrangements, and pointed to the many margins on which individual can exercise capture of rights, how they seek to protect their rights, the resources consumed in this process, and the role of institutions in facilitating and constraining such processes. This institutional research program is considerably richer than the one implied by Mark II property rights economics.