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Resource Regimes

May 30, 2012

I just finished reading the 1982 classic, Resource Regimes: Natural Resources and Social Institutions, by Oran Young. I highly recommend it for anyone interested in understanding marine resource policy-making. Though Young’s theory is applicable to the management of all natural resources, his background means that it is nicely tailored with fisheries examples.

The thesis of the book is that social institutions will serve to determine what natural resources are regarded by society as having value and how value conflicts relating to the use of these resources are resolved. This thesis and its resulting examination is very useful as the two dominant paradigms in natural resource management theory – neoclassical microeconomics and ecology – are rather limited. Both assume that the state is a unified, rational actor and both posit goals that are frequently ignored by the state (allocative efficiency and ecological sustainability, respectively).

According to Young, resource regimes are:

[S]ocial institutions that serve to order the actions of those interested in the use of various natural resources. Like all social institutions, they are recognized patterns of behavior around which expectations converge.

And the core of every resource regime is a structure of rights and rules.

A right is anything to which an actor (individual or otherwise) is entitled by virtue of occupying a recognized role…Additionally, the possession of a right by one actor invariably produces a corresponding obligation on the part of others.

Rules are well-defined guides to action or standards setting forth actions that members of some specified subject group are expected to perform (or to refrain from performing) under appropriate circumstances.

In general, the most common types of rights related to natural resources are property and utilization rights. The most common rules include those that manage the behavior of rights holders and establish standards for liability in cases of injury to other parties resulting from the use of natural resources. There are also frequently procedural rules to resolve disputes among resource users.

Young’s theory not only provides an excellent theoretical basis to evaluate the content and structure of natural resource regimes, but also to evaluate actor compliance. Specifically, he suggests that regime analysts build on Rawls’ partial compliance theory, which deals with situations in which individuals can, and sometimes do, disregard rights, violate rules, and so forth, despite the fact that they may acknowledge their authoritativeness. Such theory leads to a more comprehensive analysis of regime effectiveness and the relative merits of alternative institutional arrangements, though he admits that the evaluation of compliance will be difficult under real-world conditions as there are frequently ‘shades of grey’ when obeying rights and following rules. Further, enforcement agencies may frequently create special rules for behavior around issues when it is costly to compel compliance; that is, there will be some range of outcomes that both subjects and those charged with eliciting compliance find preferable to outcomes of conflict through sanctions or non-agreement leading to drawn out procedures.

The only chapter I found rather weak was Young’s treatment of regime dynamics. He is quite sharp in noting that there are at least three different orders of regimes – naturally arising orders, negotiated orders, and imposed orders – and provides many ideas on their occurrence and development. However, I feel it is a weakness in the text that he did not evaluate the development of negotiated and imposed orders in governance systems with low capacity and informal, locally legitimate resource regimes. This is the dominant scenario in coastal states around the world, so the lack of attention leaves me longing for quite a lot more. Some work on this has been conducted by Dennis Galvan on democratic institutions in Africa and Philip Nichols on market institutions in former soviet republics. I’ve not yet seen any work on this in the realm of marine resource management, though.

Young also provides an excellent discussion of criteria for regime evaluation. The main takeaway is that there are many dimensions upon which to evaluate regimes, from allocative efficiency and equity to the noneconomic values and transaction costs, but that there is no obvious way to aggregate these different criteria. Ultimately, any evaluation must be value-laden.

The book finishes with an interesting case study of the 1976 Fishery Conservation and Management Act (what is today known as the Magnuson-Stevens Fisheries Conservation and Management Act) that found that, even as far back as 1982, the law lacked clear rules and established a pattern of rights and policy development that might lead to continued overfishing. As is now well known, the law was quite a failure in terms of resource sustainability until a civil society reform drive led to an overhaul in 1995 and strong amendments in 2006.

All in all, this is a good read.

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