Saturday, February 07, 2009

Economics, the Law, and Treasure Hunting

Last week, deep-sea explorers announced they found the shipwreck of the original HMS Victory which sank in 1744. This is certainly a victory for the decedents of her captain (as the location of the ship demonstrates it sank due to a storm, not mistakes on the captain's part). But that is not the interesting part of the rest of us: it's the treasure.

Well, the legal battle for the treasure is what's interesting as the treasure is mostly large bronze cannons of historic significance. There also might be as much as four tons of gold, but that's just a theory. Due to the decay of the site, we're a long way off from a good estimation of value.

But that hasn't stopped the British government from claiming "dibs," though the site's in international waters. Lost for over 250 years, the government argues they never explicitly gave up sovereignty of the ship and its contents.
If it really is the HMS Victory, "her remains are sovereign immune," the British Ministry of Defense (MOD) said in a statement on its blog Monday.

"The wreck remains the property of the Crown. We have not waived our rights to it. This means that no intrusive action may be taken without the express consent of the United Kingdom."
They also want a cut of what's found, though the exact size is under negotiation (but you can bet it'll be a sizable one).

Safe to say, it creates a mess for the people who found the ship to sort out. It also cuts on their profit margin. This is where law and economics can help. The boringly named field of law and economics uses economics to better form the law so it encourages efficiency.

In this case, the law allowing a country to claim sovereignty on a wreck someone else found makes it less profitable for other people to find and recover wrecks. Thus more ships sit at the bottom of the ocean, slowly decaying into nothing. There are few examples so illustrative of waste as that one. Granted, there's a good argument for claiming sovereignty on a ship that sank last week. It takes time to find wrecks and if somebody just stumbles upon it in the meantime and gets to claim it all, that would have its own unintended consequences on how willing people are to use ships (or even build them in the first place). But that argument doesn't spill over to a quarter of a millennium. This looks a lot more like theft then maintaining sovereignty. I hope the British government aren't looking for any other important ships, of their own sake.

1 comment:

aglu said...

The sunk vessel should belong to the one who will lift it. It is the best variant.