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Spring 2013
ISSN 0890-913X
Volume 28, Number 2

Property Rights: Private or Public? Evidence from the Boston Frozen Water Trade

David J. Hebert, George Mason University
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TheJournalofPrivateEnterprise28(2),2013,111123PropertyRights:PrivateorPublic?EvidencefromtheBostonFrozenWaterTradeDavidJ.Hebert*GeorgeMasonUniversityAbstractManyeconomistsagreethatmarketsworkexceptionallywellyetconcedethatthiscanonlyhappenwithinthecontextofclearlydefinedpropertyrights,whichnecessitatesgovernmentaction.Thisisfalse.Iceharvestersin19thcenturyBostonwereabletocreatetheirownsystemofpropertyrightsthatallowedeachpersonaroundthepondtothickeniceasneeded.Indoingso,thispapercontributestoagrowingliteraturedemonstratingnotonlythatpropertyrightscanbeprovidedprivately,butthattheyservethefunctionofidealstate-providedpropertyrights.JELCodes:N52,N72,N92,O30Keywords:Propertyrights;Technologicalchange;Self-governance;IceI.IntroductionImaginethatyouarelivinginCalcutta,India,in1837andamanwithathickBostonaccentoffersyousomeicecream.Thereisnosuchdeviceasarefrigerator,letaloneafreezer,andyethereisthismanofferingyouacold(anddelicious)treat.Howdiditgetthere?Economistsrightfullytrumpetthepowerofmarketstoallocateresourcesefficientlythroughthesystemofprofitandloss.However,thesesamescholarswillfrequentlyconcedethatthisisonlypossiblewithinaworldofdefinedandenforcedpropertyrights.Infact,mosteconomicstextbooksimplicitlyassumethatpropertyrightssimplyexistandproceedtodiscusseconomicperformancefromthatstandpoint.Incaseswherepropertyrightsareunclear,theythentakeagods-eyeviewinsuggestingthatthiscanberesolvedwiththe*TheauthorwishestothankPeterBoettke,ChristopherCoyne,PeterLeeson,EdwardStringham,andseminarparticipantsatGeorgeMasonUniversity,theAssociationofPrivateEnterpriseMeetings,andtheSouthernEconomicConferenceforhelpfulcomments.ThegenerousfinancialsupportoftheMercatusCenterisgreatlyappreciated.Allremainingerrorsaremyown.111
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