Vernon Smith on Elinor Ostrom

Vernon, of course, knows Ostrom's work well:

Relentlessly, Ostrom has pursued answers to two questions:

(1) Since "everybody's property is nobody's property," how is it that there are so many cases where collectives of ordinary people with no education and with none of the economists' knowledge of "the tragedy of the commons," in fact discover ingenious rules (institutions) for taking the "tragedy" out of a productive resource they hold in common? If you read her book you will find among the diversity of examples a Swiss village whose people have private property in the plots they plant and harvest, but also have a communal summer meadow for grazing their cows. One rule, still enforced, dating back to 1517 states that "no citizen could send more cows to the alp than he could feed during the winter." Wintering a cow is costly, and this rule rations access to the commons by tying it to private property rights….

(2) As a distinguished political-economic scientist she will be the first to tell you that there are also plenty of commons problems that represent institutional failures and fragilities; she has asked why, and what makes the difference between success and failure? The fragilities include inshore fisheries and groundwater basins with continuing commons problems; failures include salt water fisheries and irrigation systems hamstrung by the complexity of the rules.

Success is associated with clarity in the definition of and bounds on individual rights (and opportunities) to take action, and the geography of the commons; details for monitoring, operations, sanctions and mechanisms for conflict resolution emerge from within the collective and out of motivated people's direct experience with environmental context and each other. When too many of these problem-solving elements fail, the governance systems fail or require continuing attention to their fragility characteristics. A fatal source of disintegration is the inappropriate application of uninformed external authority, including intervention to prevent application of efficacious rules to political favorites. Also detrimental to good solutions is the OPM (other people's money) problem.

…Ostrom brings a distinct style in applying her skill in different methodologies. She blends field and laboratory empirical methods, economic and game theory, the really important ingredient of scientific common sense, and she constantly challenges her own understanding by looking at new potentially contrary evidence and designing new experiments to challenge her understanding of the emergent historical rules and the theory used to explicate them.


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