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Distributional Effects of the Transition to Property Rights for a Common-Pool Resource

University of Wisconsin, MadisonUniversity of California, Santa Barbara, and National Bureau of Economic Research

The introduction of property rights to manage common-pool resources is often met with opposition from some incumbent users, despite evidence of large aggregate increases in resource rent. We introduce an analytical model with firm heterogeneity to distinguish between traditional resource rent, which accrues to all owners, and inframarginal rent, which accrues to those with high skill. We show that, in the presence of skill heterogeneity, some current users (namely those with the highest skill) may prefer common-pool management, despite large aggregate increases in rents due to rationalization. Whether the transition to property rights is Pareto improving hinges critically on the initial allocation of rights, because inframarginal rents may be lower under property rights than limited entry. In our application to an important US fishery, property rights generate a ten-fold increase in market capitalization and a doubling in the present value of the resource, but without substantial free grandfathering, the top harvesters would rationally oppose the transition to property rights.