Tuesday, October 13, 2009

"We should avoid simple dichotomies."

I had a pleasant shock this weekend. I found out that I had already read, some years ago, a key work by one of the most recent winners of the Nobel Prize in economics, Elinor Ostrom. Her book Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action, is relevant to the questions that Phil Paine and I have addressed in connection with our interest in a world history of democracy. Brad DeLong's blog directed me to this entry on Marginal Revolution which explains some of the reasons her work is considered interesting and important:

Elinor Ostrom and the well-governed commons

Elinor Ostrom may arguable be considered the mother of field work in development economics. She has worked closely investigating water associations in Los Angeles, police departments in Indiana, and irrigation systems in Nepal. In each of these cases her work has explored how between the atomized individual and the heavy-hand of government there is a range of voluntary, collective associations that over time can evolve efficient and equitable rules for the use of common resources. [emphasis SM]

With her husband, political scientist Vincent Ostrom, she established the Workshop in Political Theory and Policy Analysis in 1973 at Indiana University, an extraordinarily productive and evolving association of students and professors which has produced a wealth of theory, empirical studies and experiments in political science and especially collective action. The Ostrom's work bridges political science and economics. Both are well known at GMU since both have been past presidents of the Public Choice society and both have been influenced by the Buchanan-Tullock program. You can also see elements of Hayekian thought about the importance of local knowledge in the work of both Ostroms (here is a good interview). My colleague, Peter Boettke has just published a book on the Ostrom's and the Bloomington School.

Elinor Ostrom's work culminated in Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action which uses case studies to argue that around the world private associations have often, but not always, managed to avoid the tragedy of the commons and develop efficient uses of resources. (Ostrom summarizes some of her findings from this research here). Using game theory she provided theoretical underpinnings for these findings and using experimental methods she put these theories to the test in the lab.

For Ostrom it's not the tragedy of the commons but the opportunity of the commons. Not only can a commons be well-governed but the rules which help to provide efficiency in resource use are also those that foster community and engagement. A formally government protected forest, for example, will fail to protect if the local users do not regard the rules as legitimate. In Hayekian terms legislation is not the same as law. Ostrom's work is about understanding how the laws of common resource governance evolve and how we may better conserve resources by making legislation that does not conflict with law.

The MR links and comments by its readers are worth following up. In particular I am grateful for the link to this appreciation of the work of Elinor and her husband Vincent, which includes long interviews with both of them. I think anyone interested in the history of government or economic history or institutional history of just about any sort would benefit from looking at this. The quote that I used for the title of this post comes from Vincent, who said, in a rectification of names spirit,
Language always simplifies. Yet, recourse to overly abstract simplifications such as "states" and "markets," "capitalism" and "socialism," the "modern" and the "less developed," is becoming increasingly useless. We must take care not to reify concepts and conceptual models -- to treat them as though they are realities. We should avoid simple dichotomies.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the helpful post; you saved me a lot of googling.

    In same ways, voluntary associations may be easier to form than ever as the internet cuts transaction cuts. I have friends here in Belltown (Seattle) helping associations in Chile and India. OTOH the commons appears more encumbered than ever. Let's hope this Prize makes our intellectual commons more effectual!