An Experimental Inquiry into the Ecological Determinants of Property Rights

Erik O. Kimbrough, Assistant Professor of Economics, Simon Fraser University
Around the world, societies have developed extremely diverse systems of property rights to manage resources and reduce conflict. From rules governing access to common grazing lands to land titling rules, all property systems share certain fundamental features (e.g. delineating access rights and rules of transfer), but each particular instance differs in response to local circumstances. This project will explore the hypothesis that how each system differs is a predictable consequence of local ecological conditions, specific to the regions and resources over which rights are established. Using stylized laboratory experiments, in which these ecological conditions are subject to direct control, this project seeks to observe emergent institutional dynamics across various ecological settings in order to demonstrate the sensitivity of rules to the environment. Often development policy consists of manipulations intended to impose “good” institutions on less developed societies to align their policies with those that have proven successful in more developed countries. If, however, the choice of proper institution is contingent on ecological conditions, this may help to explain the failure of so many development initiatives to reap the promised gains.