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Elinor Ostrom and the Tragedy of the Commons

I was very happy to hear about Elinor Ostrom’s Nobel Prize in Economics. Her work focuses on the tragedy of the commons and collective action problems, which overlaps several of my own research interests. 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.

For the best summary of Ostrom’s work, see her excellent 1990 book Governing the Commons.

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. The latter, after all, often depend on enforcement by government. Even where private property rights exist, it is often easier […]

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