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Ostrom and the Commons


Elinor Ostrom’s research on common pool resources (CPRs) in many ways marks the beginning of the modern debate on the commons. The intellectual consensus when she began her work in postwar America was firmly against the idea that a commonly held property could be durable and economically efficient. In an influential article for Science, ‘The Tragedy of the Commons’, Garrett Hardin had argued that, presented with a natural resource like a fishery or a forest, each individual would take as much as possible, as fast as possible, in the knowledge that everyone else could act in a similar way. For example, farmers would put as many animals on a shared pasture as they could, fearing that everyone else would do likewise:
Each man is locked into a system that compels him to increase his herd without limit – in a world that is limited. Ruin is the destination toward which all men rush, each pursuing his own best interest in a society that believes in the freedom of the commons.
It was a form of reasoning that resonated strongly with what C. Wright Mills called the crackpot realism of the Cold War. Mancur Olson, for example. argued in The Logic of Collective Action that ‘people who can’t be excluded from a collective good have little incentive to contribute towards maintaining it’. The game theorists at RAND were also on hand to reinforce the point with the cold mathematics of the Prisoners’ Dilemma.
In Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action Ostrom drew on a large body of empirical evidence to show that worries about ‘the tragedy of the commons’ were often overstated and sometimes downright misleading. As long as certain conditions are met, there is nothing inevitable about the destruction of shared resources. Far from acting out preordained roles in a headlong rush to destruction, individuals can cooperate with others in their own, much more upbeat dramas.
Ostrom outlines some of factors likely to be present in sustainably managed common pool resources. The first, and perhaps the most important, of these is the need for common resources to be bounded, and access limited to a defined group, with defined rights and responsibilities:
Individuals or households who have rights to withdraw resource units from the CPR must be clearly defined, as must the boundaries of the CPR itself.
For Ostrom the freedom of the commons is not a free-for-all. It is a set of powers and balancing obligations that belong to a defined group of people. Ostrom goes on to set out some other factors that tend to avert tragic over-exploitation. The rules governing how much each individual in this group withdraws, and when, need to be sensitive to local conditions. Those affected by these rules need to be able to participate in modifying them. Those responsible for monitoring the collective arrangements must be accountable to the commoners they serve. Violators of the rules need to be treated in a flexible way by other users or their agents and there need to be adequate conflict resolution mechanisms. Finally, external authorities must not challenge the rights of commoners to devise their own institutional arrangements. The overarching power of the state is often destructive when it seeks to impose order on the apparent messiness of communal property regimes. The power that preserves derives from, and is subordinate to, the commoners themselves. Rationality from above, on the other hand, all too often reproduces the effects of an airstrike.

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