Home > Adam Sacks, commons, Elinor Ostrom, Grist > Tragedy of the panicked enviro III: learning from Elinor Ostrom about cooperative action

Tragedy of the panicked enviro III: learning from Elinor Ostrom about cooperative action

This is the second follow-up to my post “Grist and the tragedy of the panicked enviro“,
where I try to clarify the institutional frameworks for understanding
and addressing resource problems, in response to confusion in comments
by others.

T Worstall
Posted 5:27 pm
27 Aug 2009

TokyoTom makes most of the points I would wish to make. Except for this
one: you clearly do not understand what Hardin was saying about the
tragedy of the commons. For example, he made very clear that there are
two possible solutions to the degradation of an open access resource.
We can have social (socialist) regulations and limitations or we can
have private (capitalist) property solutions. Those are his
descriptions BTW. Which works best depends upon the society and the
resource. He emphatically did NOT say that pricvate property sultions
were the only ones possible. And nor does any economist say that
private property solutions are the only ones either possible or
desirable. Try reading some Ronald Coase on transaction costs to see


Posted 10:03 pm

27 Aug 2009

Let me add some further nuance to Mr. Worstall`s comment by saying
that Hardin`s fertile observations have fuelled extensive further
research on common property problems, with Elinor Ostrom being recognized as a leading light.

Here is one general bibliography on commons research: http://www.indiana.edu/~workshop/wsl/tragedy.htm

has refined Hardin`s work in the following way (quoting from a review
of Ostrom`s 1990 ground-breaking and extensively researched book
, GOVERNING THE COMMONS, The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action):

Ostrom uses the term “common pool resources” to denote natural
resources used by many individuals in common, such as fisheries,
groundwater basins, and irrigation systems. Such resources have long
been subject to overexploitation and misuse by individuals acting in
their own best interests. Conventional solutions typically involve
either centralized governmental regulation or privatization of the
resource. But, according to Ostrom, there is a third approach to
resolving the problem of the commons: the design of durable cooperative
institutions that are organized and governed by the resource users

“The central question in this
study,” she writes, “is how a group of principals who are in an
interdependent situation can organize and govern themselves to obtain
continuing joint benefits when all face temptations to free-ride,
shirk, or otherwise act opportunistically.”

heart of this study is an in-depth analysis of several long-standing
and viable common property regimes, including Swiss grazing pastures,
Japanese forests, and irrigation systems in Spain and the Philippines.
Although Ostrom insists that each of these situations must be evaluated
on its own terms, she delineates a set of eight “design principles”
common to each of the cases. These include clearly defined boundaries,
monitors who are either resource users or accountable to them,
graduated sanctions, and mechanisms dominated by the users themselves
to resolve conflicts and to alter the rules. The challenge, she
observes, is to foster contingent self-commitment among the members ….

Throughout the book, she stresses the dangers of overly
generalized theories of collective action, particularly when used
“metaphorically” as the foundation for public policy. The three
dominant models — the tragedy of the commons, the prisoners’s dilemma,
and the logic of collective action — are all inadequate,
she says, for
they are based on the free-rider problem where individual, rational,
resource users act against the best interest of the users collectively.
These models are not necessarily wrong, Ostrom states, rather the
conditions under which they hold are very particular. They apply only
when the many, independently acting individuals involved have high
discount rates and little mutual trust, no capacity to communicate or
to enter into binding agreements, and when they do not arrange for
monitoring and enforcing mechanisms to avoid overinvestment and overuse.

concludes that “if this study does nothing more than shatter the
convictions of many policy analysts that the only way to solve common
pool resource problems is for external authorities to impose full
private property rights or centralized regulation, it will have
accomplished one major purpose.”

profile of Ostrom, who is a member of the National Academies of Science
and and Editor of its Proceedings, is here:

Her work can be found here: http://scholar.google.co.jp/scholar?q=Ostrom,+Elinor&hl=en&btnG=Search and

here: http://de.scientificcommons.org/elinor_ostrom

thing worth noting is that the historical and ongoing records are rife
with examples – such as our crashing local fisheries – where government
intervention has done more harm than good.
  In these cases and in
others, Ostrom introduces an analytical approach that is acceptable
widely across the political spectrum, even if differences in opinion
will remain.  See, for example, this discussion at libertarian-leaning
George Mason U:  http://www.theihs.org/bunnygame/

Categories: Adam Sacks, commons, Elinor Ostrom, Grist Tags: