Mourning An Uncommon Student of the Commons

Elinor Ostrom, winner 0f the Nobel economics prize, died earlier today.  She is best known for her work on how groups manage common resources such as fisheries.  The “tragedy of the commons” is a theory that these common resources will inevitably be destroyed unless they are privatized or regulated by governments.  Professor Ostrom showed that communities have managed to create and enforce social norms to protect common resources without recognizing private property rights and without government intervention.  These findings provide a more optimistic vision of the future of the commons.

Almost anyone can find grounds for encouragement in these findings — liberals because they show that privatization may not be needed; libertarians because they show regulation may not be needed; and conservatives because they show the strength of communities.  More importantly, Ostrom added greatly to our knowledge of how institutions and norms operate in an important context.  She will be missed.

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Reader Comments

4 Replies to “Mourning An Uncommon Student of the Commons”

  1. I don’t believe Professor Ostrom’s work undermines the Tragedy of the Commons theory as written by Professor Garret Hardin. In fact, I think Ostrom’s work complements it.

    Professor Hardin’s Tragedy of the Commons does not suggest that common pool resources must either be privatized or regulated by government. It provides a more general rule: the commons must be managed through “mutual coercion, mutually agreed upon.”

    Such a pact could result in a privatization regime, or it could result in government regulation. But it could also result in the community and institutional norms that Professor Ostrom studied.

    Whether her work gives us more or less optimism for the future of the commons may depend on how you view Hardin’s original work. If you believe the original article provided two, and only two, possible solutions to the tragedy, then Professor Ostrom’s work may provide a ‘third way’ that seemed impossible before. That may increase one’s optimism.

    I tend to view Hardin’s article as providing a theoretical framework for solving common pool resource problems, with a continuous range of possible solutions within that framework. Although I admire Professor Ostrom’s work, I don’t believe it provides any more optimism than Hardin gave us–it fits within, rather than adds to, the framework he proposed for addressing common pool resource problems.

  2. I don’t believe Professor Ostrom’s work undermines the Tragedy of the Commons theory as written by Professor Garret Hardin. In fact, I think Ostrom’s work complements it.

    Professor Hardin’s Tragedy of the Commons does not suggest that common pool resources must either be privatized or regulated by government. It provides a more general rule: the commons must be managed through “mutual coercion, mutually agreed upon.”

    Such a pact could result in a privatization regime, or it could result in government regulation. But it could also result in the community and institutional norms that Professor Ostrom studied.

    Whether her work gives us more or less optimism for the future of the commons may depend on how you view Hardin’s original work. If you believe the original article provided two, and only two, possible solutions to the tragedy, then Professor Ostrom’s work may provide a ‘third way’ that seemed impossible before. That may increase one’s optimism.

    I tend to view Hardin’s article as providing a theoretical framework for solving common pool resource problems, with a continuous range of possible solutions within that framework. Although I admire Professor Ostrom’s work, I don’t believe it provides any more optimism than Hardin gave us–it fits within, rather than adds to, the framework he proposed for addressing common pool resource problems.

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Dan Farber

Dan Farber has written and taught on environmental and constitutional law as well as about contracts, jurisprudence and legislation. Currently at Berkeley Law, he has al…

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