Was prior appropriation really about distributive justice?

From Jill Robbie at the University of Glasgow, a nice explanation of David Schorr’s revisionist account of the evolution of the “doctrine of prior appropriation” in western water law:

For some law and economics scholars, the evolution of the prior appropriation doctrine is explained due to the high value of water in the dry climate and the necessity of a private property regime to ensure maximum utilisation of this valuable natural resource. As a result, the history of prior appropriation is often used as evidence of the superiority of private property over a common property regime for scarce resources.

David challenges this traditional view by digging deep into archival material from the mid to late 19th century in Colorado. Using this material, he shows that the ideology prevalent in 19th century western America was stanchly set against speculation and corporate ownership. The development of prior appropriation, where water rights are restricted by actual use and made transferable was, David argues, motivated by principles of distributive justice rather than economic efficiency and wealth maximisation. Due to this finding, David argues that property regimes are often more nuanced and complicated than a strict distinction between private property and commons. He shows that the prior appropriation theory in Colorado grew from a system of public property and provided private rights to water which were transferrable in order to try and ensure as wide a distribution of rights among actual users as possible.

Robbie’s comparative discussion of Scotland and Colorado, drawing on the distinctions between common and private property embedded in water law in both places, is fascinating and worth a click.

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