Friday, May 25, 2018

Irrigation systems: Moors v British

Erum Sattar recently posted "From the Moors to the New World: Lessons from Dynamic Water Sharing for a Colonial-Era System in the Indus". The abstract:
This project is a close study of the legal and political aspects of management of water resources in semi-arid environments. The British in India laid the foundations of the modern irrigation system in what is now India and Pakistan. In semi-arid environments, the bulk of agriculture relies on irrigation, as it did in Spain under the Moors. We can observe a stark divide in the use of laws and institutions to manage natural resources in different societies, at different times and places. Some societies have managed in a way that achieved prosperity and long-term sustainability. Others have mismanaged so as to create ecological devastation and social stagnation. The Moors of Spain created a vibrant civilization in the Middle Ages that lasted nearly eight hundred years. One of the reasons for the dynamism of their civilization was their judicious management of water resources on which foundation they created a thriving agricultural economy that produced the economic surplus for their vibrant urban culture. Of particular interest for my project is what I regard as the essence of Moorish water management: its management of scarcity by borrowing principles from the great cradles of civilization, Mesopotamia and the Nile, which built abundance in harsh environments, along with principles of use, reuse and justice as conceived of in the Quran. These sets of principles, I shall argue, yielded a society that wasted no drop of its precious waters and adopted and innovated to create new technologies, infrastructure, norms and institutions. The British in India meanwhile laid the foundations of water-sharing in a way that to this day reifies rural hierarchy and leads to social and economic stagnation while devastating the environment. In this project of comparison, I draw relevant lessons from Moorish water systems for today's management of water resources across countries.
Irrigation channel in Spain

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

CFP: Celebrating Commons Scholarship

An issue of Theoretical Inquiries in Law on "The Tragedy of the Commons at 50" that I am co-editing should be out in a couple of months, at which time I'll post about it. In the meantime I received this call for papers for a conference on a similar theme. Please contact the organizers if you have any questions.

Georgetown University, Washington D.C.
October 5-6, 2018
This year marks the 50th anniversary of Garrett Hardin's The Tragedy of the Commons. In one of the most cited articles of the 20th Century, Hardin provided a stylized and memorable cautionary tale of how self-interested actions can destroy common resources. However, even as Hardin's work gained traction with a broad array of scholars in many fields of study, it also garnered its fair share of criticism. Indeed, while Hardin popularized the notion of the commons, Elinor Ostrom won a Nobel Prize for her rigorous research refuting the core tenets of Hardin's cautionary tale-- namely that open access resources ultimately end in collective failure, or tragedy, and that common resources should either be regulated by central authorities or privatized.  Ostrom’s work successfully demonstrated that common natural resources—e.g.  land, fisheries, forests, irrigation systems—are collectively managed by groups of users all over the world using “rich mixtures of public and private instrumentalities.”
The “commons” is now employed as a framework to understand and rethink the management and governance of many kinds of shared resources. These include natural resources such as those studied by Ostrom, digital resources and the Internet, housing and other urban infrastructure, among others. At the heart of the exploration of these “new” kinds of commons is the recognition that Hardin’s Tragedy is a groundbreaking, though ultimately incomplete, conceptualization of the challenges posed by shared resources and the kind of governance solutions available to address those challenges. In addition to concerns about overconsumption (Hardin’s primary focus), these new human-created commons (e.g., scholarly communities, urban resources, and open-source software) pose questions about robust participation in creating, sustaining, and expanding the commons.
To celebrate this now multifaceted, multidisciplinary field of study, scholars from many disciplines will gather to discuss solutions, lessons, and challenges facing the commons and commons scholarship. This gathering will recognize that commons are as diverse as the scholars who study them--ranging from rainforests to the Internet to the city—and that field is still developing in exciting ways.  In a world as complex as ours, finding such interconnections across disciplines is extremely valuable.   
The conference will be held on October 5-6th at Georgetown University and will be the kickoff and flagship event of “World Commons Week” activities around the world (, promoted and sponsored by the International Association for the Study of the Commons.
We invite proposals for paper presentations, thematic panels or sessions, workshops or interactive sessions, and poster presentations on research topics related to the commons and examined through the lens of a particular field or discipline.   Please submit an abstract of between 500-750 words that makes clear the relevance of the paper to the conference topic and a brief bio by June 15, 2018. Submit all materials to Chrystie Swiney, with a copy to the organizers below. Also, please be aware that there is small $50 fee to attend the conference, even if you are presenting a paper.

Monday, May 21, 2018

Just price

Thomas Aquinas
(detail from Valle Romita Polyptych by Gentile da Fabriano (c. 1400))

William Boyd recently posted  "Just Price, Public Utility, and the Long History of Economic Regulation in America". The abstract:
This Essay investigates the history of “just price” and its influence on the concept and practice of public utility regulation in the United States. It begins with a discussion of the Scholastic understanding of just price and its relationship to commutative justice, with particular attention to the problem of coercion in economic exchange. The Essay then discusses the centrality of just price to broader ideas of moral economy and to economic thought and regulation in colonial America and the early United States. The heart of the Essay shows how the idea of just price influenced public utility regulation as it took shape during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. As the Essay demonstrates, received understandings of just price were fundamental to the public utility idea and were at the heart of battles over the proper approach to utility valuation and rate regulation during the first half of the twentieth century. The Essay concludes with a discussion of efforts to restructure formerly regulated industries during the last quarter of the twentieth century, with particular attention to the challenges faced by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission as it seeks to ensure that prices in restructured natural gas and electricity markets are just and reasonable. Although much of the Essay’s purpose is descriptive, several larger points emerge from this study. First, the history of just price reveals that relations of reciprocity and fairness in exchange are at the very core of the public utility idea. When seen from this perspective, public utility represents an important experiment in translating abstract principles of economic justice and fair pricing into working rules for governing key systems of provisioning in a modern industrial society. Second, the history of just price reminds us that prices are more than signals; that they are also relationships and that price relationships can be coercive. At root, the economics of just price is an economics of coercion and, as such, an economics that resonates quite strongly with efforts by Progressive lawyers, legal realists, and institutional economists to develop an approach to law and economics (and economic regulation) that would put coercion at its center. Third, the history of just price shows that competitive markets, when functioning properly, can be powerful instruments for protecting consumers and facilitating fairness in exchange. But it also underscores the importance of taking individual markets on their own terms and recognizing that some markets, and the mechanisms of price formation at their center, are more vulnerable to disruption and manipulation than standard economic models suggest. Finally, at the most general level, the history of just price reminds us that for a very long time—far longer than the lifespan of classical and neoclassical economics—ethical and social concerns have been intimately bound up with conceptions of economy, economic life, and the provision of necessities.

Friday, May 18, 2018

The earliest boundary water treaty

Figure 1: 
Memorial cone of the Mesilim Treaty
Thanks to Peter Sand for contributing this post!

[Footnotes after the jump.]

The Musée du Louvre in Paris holds tangible evidence of the world’s first known legal agreement on boundary water resources: viz., the Mesilim Treaty, concluded in the 25th century B.C. between the two Mesopotamian states of Lagash and Umma. The terms of the treaty have been preserved as cuneiform inscriptions on a limestone cone (figure 1) and a stele commemorating Lagash’s victorious battle enforcing the treaty.[1] Fragments of both artifacts were excavated in 1878-1912 by French archeologists on sites at Tellō (Tall Lawh, Dhi Qar Governate in Southern Iraq), the ancient temple-city of Girsu, once the capital of Lagash.[2] The inscriptions, transcribed and translated into French, German, Italian and English,[3] turned out to match several other texts on corresponding archeological finds of the period. The key exhibit, the so-called ‘Stele of the Vultures’, depicts Lagash ruler E’anatum leading his army, and vultures devouring slain Umma warriors (figures 2 and 3).

Mesilim [or Mesalim, born ca. 2600 B.C.] was the ruler of Kish, a kingdom further to the north of Lagash and Umma, which held a traditional ‘hegemonic’ position in the loose alliance of small adjoining Sumerian city-states in the region between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, south of what was to become Babylon.[4] Because of the prevailing precarious rainfall conditions, the agricultural economy of the entire basin area has always been crucially dependent on irrigation, mainly from the ‘great Tigris’, through an elaborate system of canals and levees which inevitably require close inter-community cooperation. The geographic focus of the bilateral Lagash-Umma agreement, concluded under Mesilim’s authority as external arbiter, was the fertile Gu-edena valley, roughly ten by four kilometers wide and irrigated by Tigris waters from a canal named Lum-magirnunta on the border between Umma and Lagash, with boundaries marked by stone steles.
Figure 2: Stele of the Vultures
Figure 3: Stele of the Vultures
Part of the treaty was a crop-sharing arrangement for a portion of boundary land (some eleven square kilometers) downstream on Lagash territory, that was cultivated by Umma under lease, against payment of an annual rental fee (máš, calculated in silver-shekel equivalents of barley crops) to cover the costs of canal maintenance.[5] However, when Umma repeatedly refused to honor its accumulated tenancy debts, hostilities broke out, resulting in partial destruction of the canal and in unilateral diversions of water upstream. In several successive military confrontations (‘the first known war in history that was, in essence, fought about water’),[6] Umma was ultimately defeated by Lagash (first under the leadership of E’anatum, ca. 2470 B.C.; and later under his nephew Enmetena, ca. 2430 B.C.),[7] and was forced to accept the reconstruction (and extension) of the canal and the reinstatement of the boundaries as originally drawn up by Mesilim.

Alas, the treaty so renewed and ‘writ in stone’, and the peace so re-established, does not seem to have survived for long, and was eventually overtaken and mooted by external political events (the Akkadian/Sargonic invasions) in subsequent generations. Even so, the agreement has been hailed as ‘the first international arbitration’,[8] and as ‘the oldest treaty of which there is a reliable record’.[9] It remains a unique early attempt at resolving a dispute over boundary waters by formal reference to a superior spiritual order (in this case, the deities of both parties, repeatedly ‘sworn to’ in the text), and hence may indeed qualify as a precursor of international law in this field – well over 4,000 years ago.[10]