What is a Gridlock Economy?

Ken Black

A gridlock economy is one that is so choked by private property and private property rights that it ceases to utilize the resources available to it in an efficient manner for the greater good of the population. The term was coined by author and professor Michael Heller, who wrote a book by that name, published in 2008. The book has been widely reviewed and stirred a number of debates.

Woman holding a book
Woman holding a book

Heller’s controversial theory suggests that too much private ownership of property can create insurmountable hindrances to economic growth and prosperity. He uses the illustration of property owners as gatekeepers. As gatekeepers have the right to grant and restrict access, they hold a great deal of power and can encourage or discourage progress. As the number of gatekeepers increase, the difficulty in navigating through a gridlock economy increases likewise.

Of course, private property comes in a number of different forms to create a gridlock economy. Heller takes aim at a number of them, including real estate and intellectual property. In one case, he argues that intellectual property rights, through the use of patents, can stifle innovations in the health care field, thus creating a gridlock economy, at least on a micro scale. Private property rights can stifle progress by making it more difficult for need public works projects to be completed, such as roads and, as Heller notes on the book’s leaf, even runways.

Any book attacking private property rights is going to be controversial. Some, especially conservatives, will see The Gridlock Economy as an attack on capitalism by an academic elitist. Private property rights are hallmarks of a capitalist society. While it cannot be denied that much of what Heller proposes goes against the principles of capitalism, pinning that as his motivation for writing the book could be shortsighted. In one piece, Heller wrote the idea for writing The Gridlock Economy came from motivation he received after hearing about a life-saving drug was having trouble making it onto the market.

Heller points out that both burdensome regulations and excessive privatization both play a role in the gridlock economy. In that, he argues, both liberals and conservatives can find a cause to which they can cling.

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