Research Handbooks in Law and Economics series
Edited by Kenneth Ayotte and Henry E. Smith
Chapter 3: The Anticommons Lexicon
Michael A. Heller* When I was drafting this chapter, my computer spell-checker kept underlining underuse with red squiggles. Underuse, it seems, is not a word in Word. These squiggles are a signal: the nonexistence of a word can be as telling as its presence. When we lack a term to describe some social condition, it is because the condition does not exist in most people’s minds. When the opposite of overuse is not considered a word, it is unsurprising that we have overlooked the hidden costs of anticommons ownership. We cannot easily fix the problem until we have created a shared language to spot tragedies of the anticommons. That’s the task of this chapter.1 COMMONS AND ANTICOMMONS To understand the underuse dilemma, it is helpful to start with overuse in a commons.2 Aristotle was among the first to note how shared ownership can lead to overuse: ‘That which is common to the greatest number has the least care bestowed upon it . . . each thinks chiefly of his own, hardly at all of the common interest; and only when he is himself concerned as an individual.’3 Why do people overuse and destroy things that they value? Perhaps they are shortsighted or dim-witted, in which case reasoned discussion or gentle persuasion may help. But even the clear-headed can overuse a commons, for good reasons. The most intractable overuse tragedy arises when individuals choose rationally to consume a common pool of scarce resources even though each knows that the sum of these decisions destroys...
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