Appropriation as Agrarianism: Distributive Justice in the Creation of Property Rights

69 Pages Posted: 12 Jun 2006 Last revised: 2 May 2019

See all articles by David Schorr

David Schorr

Tel Aviv University - Buchmann Faculty of Law


The water-law doctrine of prior appropriation, developed in Colorado in the late 1800s, has received much scholarly attention, due to the claimed efficiency advantages of the system of private property rights it is supposed to have instituted. Supporters and critics alike have associated the doctrine with values such as the preference for private over common property, the privatization of the public domain, and the facilitation of markets in natural resources.

This article relies on analysis of previously unexamined historical sources to demonstrate that the appropriation doctrine actually was intended to express contemporary radical, agrarian ideals of broadly distributed property and antimonopolism. The unofficial codes of the Colorado mining districts, conventionally thought to be the source of the doctrine's first in time, first in right principle, focused primarily on rules designed to ensure wide distribution of property. Similarly, the statutes of the Colorado Territory, the water-rights provisions of the state constitution of 1876, and early judicial decisions culminating in the leading case of Coffin v. Left Hand Ditch Co., were mainly concerned to prevent control of water by capitalists, and did so by breaking the common-law monopoly of riparian owners and opening access to the resource to all bona fide users.

This historical analysis raises the broader question of whether distributive justice has been adequately considered, alongside efficiency and public choice, as a factor in explaining the evolution of property-rights regimes.

Note: --This article has been superseded by my book, "The Colorado Doctrine: Water Rights, Corporations, and Distributive Justice on the American Frontier" (Yale University Press, 2012)--

Keywords: water law, prior appropriation, first possession, miners' laws, agrarianism, distributive justice, property theory

JEL Classification: N41, N51, O13, P11, Q15, Q25

Suggested Citation

Schorr, David, Appropriation as Agrarianism: Distributive Justice in the Creation of Property Rights. Ecology Law Quarterly, Vol. 32, p. 3, 2005, Available at SSRN:

David Schorr (Contact Author)

Tel Aviv University - Buchmann Faculty of Law ( email )

Ramat Aviv
Tel Aviv, 69978

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