Elinor Ostrom, RIP

I join those mourning the passing of Nobel Prize winner Elinor Ostrom. She will be greatly missed. In this 2009 post written soon after she won the prize, I described the significance of her pathbreaking work on collective action and tragedy of the commons problems, which has had a huge influence on economists, political scientists and legal scholars alike:

When Ostrom began writing in this field in the 1960s, the conventional wisdom in economics and political science was that the tragedy of the commons and other similar collective action problems could only be addressed through government intervention. Some dissenting economists (such as Ronald Coase) argued that they could often be addressed through privatization – converting common property into property owned by individuals, who would then have strong incentives not to overuse or destroy it. In a series of influential articles and books, Ostrom showed that there is a third way: often individuals can use social norms and informal institutions to manage common property resources and prevent tragedies of the commons. In many situations, Ostrom demonstrates, informal, decentralized approaches to managing common property resources are superior to government-imposed ones. The former take more account of the specialized local knowledge possessed by the people who actually use the resources and depend on them for their livelihoods….

Ostrom’s theories are often seen as an alternative to traditional libertarian thought, which emphasizes the importance of private property and markets. However, it actually fits well with libertarianism defined more broadly as advocacy of the superiority of private sector institutions over government. In some respects, Ostrom’s norm-based approach to dealing with tragedies of the commons is actually less dependent on government than the more traditional libertarian approach of relying on exclusive private property rights…..

Not all tragedies of the commons can be solved by the kinds of mechanisms studied by Ostrom. Her research shows that such approaches usually work well only in groups with no more than a few thousand members. Beyond that point, resource usage norms become hard to enforce and free-riding difficult to suppress. Informal norms and institutions probably cannot solve nationwide collective action problems such as rational political ignorance…., or worldwide ones such as global warming. Still, they can address a great many environmental and economic dangers that most experts once believed required government-imposed solutions.