Governing the Resource: Scarcity-induced Institutional Change

James Roumasset (University of Hawaii)
Nori Tarui (Unversity of Hawaii)

Abstract: We provide a dynamic model of natural resource management where the optimal institutional structure that governs resource use changes with resource depletion. Copeland and Taylor (2009) analyze how characteristics of a natural resource determine whether its steady-state management regime is open access, communal property, or private property. We extend this and other studies of endogenous institutions to analyze how and when resource governance may change in transition to the steady state, taking into account the fixed costs of institutional change and the variable costs of enforcement and governance. Assuming that governance cost is increasing in the difference between open-access and the actual harvest, we show that open access can be optimal if the resource is abundant relative to its demand and/or if governance costs are high. Once open access is rendered inefficient due to increased resource scarcity, further depletion warrants institutional change. In the face of set-up costs, optimal governance implies non-monotonic resource dynamics. These findings explain the co-evolution of resource scarcity and property rights—from open access to common property and beyond. We also extend the Demsetz-Taylor theory that price induced scarcity may or may not be sufficient to induce institutional change by adding dynamics to the steady state conditions of Taylor (2008).

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