Cannon Law

What’s the link between how far you could fire a gun in the 17th century, the 2009 Nobel Prize for economics, and the forthcoming Insights book on Fisheries? The answer is: governance.

The last chapter of the Insights looks at how fish stocks could be managed sustainably. One of the issues is that the oceans are a global commons, with every nation having the right to travel on them and exploit what is in or under them.

It’s not an unlimited right though, being governed by the Law of the Sea. That’s where the guns come in. In the 17th century, certain aspects of territorial integrity and sovereignty were decided on the basis of the “cannon shot rule” – how far you could fire a cannon. The three-mile limit around a coast is based on this. This has now been extended to 200 miles, but that still leaves out most of the world’s oceans.

The man responsible is Huigh de Groot, a Dutch philosopher, politician and legal scholar (not to mention escaped prisoner and shipwreck survivor too). Also known as Grotius, de Groot first made a name for himself by drafting a legal justification for Dutch piracy against the Portuguese merchant ships plying the profitable Asian trade routes in the early 17th century.

He would later become famous for his writing on the idea of a “just war”, but in between he published another major work that still influences international law today. Mare Liberum (On the freedom of the seas) sets out the case for why everyone should have unhindered access to the sea, whether for sailing or fishing.

And the Nobel prize? Elinor Ostrom got it for her work on economic governance. Ostrom’s field of research is common-pool resources. These are resources such as fish stocks to which more than one individual has access, but where each person’s consumption reduces availability of the resource to others.

One of the most well-known treatments of the question is Garrett Hardin’s 1968 book The Tragedy of the Commons, which describes how overexploitation of common pools was rapidly increasing worldwide. Economists proposed two common responses to overexploitation.

The first is privatisation with adequate means of measurement and control. This depends on having the necessary technical and financial means to exercise adequate control and may only be feasible if ownership is restricted to a few agents.

The second is government ownership and a tax on using the resource.

Ostrom proposed a third solution: retain the resource as common property and let the users create their own system of governance. In Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action, Ostrom argues that common property governance doesn’t have to be tragic, and that users themselves can devise rules and enforcement mechanisms that may be better than restrictions imposed by outsiders with little knowledge or understanding of local conditions.

One of the more surprising conclusions of her research is that users should take care of monitoring and sanctions themselves (or entrust this to someone accountable to them). As the Nobel committee points out, this “challenges conventional notions whereby enforcement should be left to impartial outsiders”. Monitoring and sanctioning can be costly, if only in the time spent doing them, yet Ostrom’s case studies show that many people are prepared to carry out governance duties. Her research raises questions as to exactly why individuals are willing to bear the burden of these often thankless tasks that benefit others.

Patrick Love

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  1. Scott Williamson - 15/01/2010 Reply

    I’ve been an operational fisheries manager for 18 years and worked in and around the both property rights based commercial fisheries (ITQs) and common property resources. I’ve also been responsible for overseeing a couple of “self managed ” fisheries. Its not QUITE as simple as this blog suggests but it is in fact doable. i look forward to reading her stuff.

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