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The evolution of property rights: The strange case of Iceland’s health records

Author(s): Thráinn Eggertsson

Journal: International Journal of the Commons
ISSN 1875-0281

Volume: 5;
Issue: 1;
Start page: 50;
Date: 2011;
Original page

Keywords: Coase Theorem | Elinor Ostrom | Iceland | property rights

In her path-breaking work, Elinor Ostrom provides theoretical and empirical evidence suggesting that individuals often overcome the problem of collective action and arrange privately for the provision and allocation of public goods, including informal property rights. Ostrom has also found that local experimentation and self-governance often produce more effective results than rulemaking by the state. In his Coase Theorem, Ronald Coase arrives at a somewhat similar conclusion. Ostrom and Coase both recognize that high transaction costs can block private rule making. The new literature on institutions, however, has jettisoned the model of a benevolent welfare maximizing state: The state does not as a rule assign the license to create property rights to those who are most likely to provide efficient solutions. Still, private individuals often find various opportunities to supply their own informal rules and governance systems. In this paper, I examine recent evolution of property rights in Iceland’s national health records. My findings a) support the hypothesis that the demand for exclusive and well-defined property rights depends directly on the value of the assets in question; b) show that de facto rights, which are the effective economic property rights, can deviate from the corresponding de jure rights; c) demonstrate the relevance of the Coase-Ostrom insight concerning the role of private ordering; and d) provide evidence that competition between mental models can have a major role in the evolution of property rights.
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