Some perspectives on Elinor Ostrom


Jason Collins


June 13, 2012

Below are three passages that capture a small part of the evolutionary flavour of the now late Elinor Ostrom’s work.

From David Sloan Wilson:

Lin’s work was like a breath of fresh air compared to the forbidding world of neoclassical economics, which was top-heavy with theory and required assumptions about human preferences and abilities that were manifestly unrealistic. In contrast, Lin’s work was empirically well grounded and her eight design principles were highly congruent with the evolutionary dynamics of cooperation in all species and the biocultural evolution of our own species. Her work might have originated within the field of political science and been applied primarily to common-pool resource groups, but I realized that it could be generalized in two senses. First, it could be placed on a more general theoretical foundation suitable for all human-related disciplines. Second, it could be applied in a practical sense to most human endeavors that involve working in groups to achieve common goals—which means most human endeavors.

From Henry Farrell’s response to Ostrom’s Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel:

Her work implies that both pure marketization and top-down government control can have badly adverse consequences for resource management, because they rob individuals of the capacity to govern themselves, and because they both lead to the depletion of important forms of local collective knowledge. Alex Tabarrok is right to see something Hayekian in Ostrom’s arguments – but it is Hayek against Hayek. Ostrom stresses repeatedly that even the best functioning markets are undergirded by an array of collective institutions which order people’s market interactions, and that in the absence of such rules, self interested behaviour will have highly adverse consequences.

From Ostrom’s How do Institutions for Collective Action Evolve (pdf):

It would be naive to assume that any evolutionary process will always lead to better outcomes. In biological systems, competition among populations of diverse species did lead to the weeding out of many individuals over time that were out-competed for mates and food in a given environment. Evolutionary processes can also lead to equilibria imposing higher costs on some species and eliminating others. The huge investment made by peacocks in their tails is one example. Thus, one should not expect that all locally governed systems will eventually find effective rule configurations. Some will experiment with rule configurations that are far from optimal. And, if the leaders of these systems are somehow advantaged by these rules, they may resist any effort to change.