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Governing the Commons

The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action

by Elinor Ostrom

Last tended to January 24, 2021

Elinor Ostrom is an economist whose work on governing systems for common shared resources won the Nobel Prize for Economics in 2009.

Chapter 1 - Reflections on the Commons

The question Ostrom is interested in is how we govern shared natural resources to ensure their long-term economic viability. We are constantly faced with the issue of Common Pool Resources (CPRs) – resources that need to be sustainable used by many people – from the scale of a local fishing pond, all the way up to the planet.

Up until recently, The Tragedy of the Commons was a widely accepted and believed mythological tale among the indigenous tribes of Economists.

Justifications of the myth usually involve Game Theory and The Prisoner's Dilemma. Economists dreamt up hypothetical possibilities of how Homo Economicus might behave inside of a mathematical equation or strategy diagram.

What they failed to realise is that empiricism and the scientific method relies on reality, which means conducting ethnographic studies with IRL humans to see how they actually behave in complex social contexts, rather than in pencil drawings on paper.

The proposed solution to the myth usually involved state regulation or privatisation. Ostrom found state intervention and market solutions were not successful in "enabling individuals to sustain long-term, productive use of natural resource systems."

Central agencies are often too far removed from the daily realities of what goes on within a common resource, and tie themselves into bureaucratic knots trying to manage it.

Privatisation tries to divide the common resource into individual parcels of property. Which gets tricky when the common resource is all the fish in the ocean.

Instead of relying on state or market models, Ostrom found communities of individuals have been far more effective at developing their own governance systems for shared resources - ones that resemble neither states nor corporations.

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Maggie Appleton © 2021