Elinor Ostrom

Self-Governance Works

Elinor Ostrom's research shows that free people can overcome the "tragedy of the commons"


Much of what government does is based on the premise that people can't do things for themselves. So government must do it for them. More often than not, the result is a ham-handed, bumbling, one-size-fits-all approach that leaves the intended beneficiaries worse off. Of course, this resulting failure is never blamed on the political approach—on the contrary, failure is taken to mean the government solution was not extravagant enough.

We who have confidence in what free people can achieve have long believed that government should not venture beyond its narrow sphere of providing physical security. It should not attempt to cure every social ill. So it's good to learn that serious scholars have demonstrated that our intuitions are right. Free people, given the chance, solve what many "experts" think are problems that require state intervention.

For that reason, Elinor Ostrom's winning of the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences ought to kindle a new interest in freedom. (See my earlier column here.)

Ostrom made her mark through field studies that show people solving one of the more vexing problems: efficient management of a common-pool resource (CPR), such as a pasture or fishery. With an unowned "commons," each individual has an incentive to get the most out of it without putting anything back.

If I take fish from a common fishing area, I benefit completely from those fish. But if I make an investment to increase the future number of fish, others benefit, too. So why should I risk making the investment? I'll wait for others to do it. But everyone else faces the same free-rider incentive. So we end up with a depleted resource and what Garrett Harden called "the tragedy of the commons."

Except, says Ostrom, we often don't. There is also an "opportunity of the commons." While most politicians conclude that, depending on the resource, efficient management requires either privatization or government ownership, Ostrom finds examples of a third way: "self-organizing forms of collective action," as she put it in an interview a few years ago. Her message is to be wary of government promises.

"Field studies in all parts of the world have found that local groups of resource users, sometimes by themselves and sometimes with the assistance of external actors, have created a wide diversity of institutional arrangements for cooperating with common-pool resources."

She has studied, for example, self-governing irrigation systems in Nepal and found successes never anticipated in the textbooks. "Irrigation systems built and governed by the farmers themselves are on average in better repair, deliver more water, and have higher agricultural productivity than those provided and managed by a government agency. … (F)armers craft their own rules, which frequently offset the perverse incentives they face in their particular physical and cultural settings. These rules may be almost invisible to outsiders. …"

In Governing the Commons, she writes about self-governed commons in Switzerland, Japan, the Philippines, and elsewhere that date back hundreds of years. For example, in the alpine village of Tobel, Switzerland, herdsmen "tend village cattle on communally owned alpine meadows" under rules of an association created in 1483. The rules govern who has access to the grazing lands and how many cows a herdsman can place there, preventing overgrazing. The cattle owners themselves run the association and handle the monitoring. Sanctions are imposed for violation of the rules, but compliance is high.

Don't mistake the association for government. Rather, it is a private co-op designed for a narrow purpose. "All of the Swiss institutions used to govern commonly owned alpine meadows have one obvious similarity—the appropriators themselves make all the major decisions about the use of the CPR."

She found something similar in Japanese villages, where residents use private property for some agricultural purposes and self-managed common forests for others.

Solutions imposed by external authority were not necessary—and usually self-defeating: "Academics, aid donors, international nongovernmental organizations, central governments, and local citizens need to learn and relearn that no government can develop the full array of knowledge, institutions and social capital needed to govern development efficiently and sustainably. …"

How about that? Freedom works.

John Stossel will soon host Stossel on the Fox Business Network. He's the author of Give Me a Break and of Myth, Lies, and Downright Stupidity.


NEXT: You might as well talk, monkey. We've captured that man in the yellow hat, and he's already confessed to everything.

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  1. Here’s the problem with this: People in power don’t care about what works; they care about keeping their power and extending their power.

  2. “I have recently written a paper on global warming and argued that we should not sit around twiddling our thumbs waiting for someone to do something. We should act now. There is a lot we can all do at all levels.”– Elinor ostrom.

    Gee, she doesn’t sound like a typical resonoid. Who’s that Danish non-scientist you libertoids love to quote on Global warming?

    1. CO2 changes follow T changes.

      C02 levels have been over 6 times what they are today and it was cooler than today.

      Your religion will give way to logic and facts. But you may destroy some economies first, so have hope. For change.

    2. Oh, pish, Morris, I thought you had no use for Danish non-scientists on this issue. If we shouldn’t care what one says, why should we care what another says?

  3. I hear ya, John, but I also worry about the other side of this argument. (which is why I think the Nobel committee chose her.)

    The other way to view this is that we have another alternative to private property that works. So even if you dislike the way governments mismanage collective property, we can still have collective property if the people involved monitor it themselves. In our world, we’d still consider that private property – just shared private property. In the world of the collectivists, though, they see this property as free to anyone. When they find out it is not, they’ll turn to the State to resolve. At first, the State just enforces the contract, then it spells it out.

    Ostrom’s work is great if viewed from the right perspective, but do you really think that’s where the Nobel Committee was viewing it from? The same committee that gave their other prize to Obama? To them, it just an easier sell to those who distrust government. Same ends, just a different means.

    1. The committee responsible for the Peace Prize and the academic prizes are entirely different. One is based in Sweden, the other Norway … So, uh, generalizing about the committees is dumb.

      1. Not really. They gave PK the economics award recently.

        Granted they gave it to Hayek too but that’s been decades.

        1. The work that earned Paul Krugman the Nobel was long ago and politically neutral. It has nothing to do with his polemics today. In fact, that work intelligently explains and expands notions of free trade and comparative advantage.

          Economics Nobels go to free market economists — or at least free market economics — more often than not. This should not be surprising to anyone who believes that free markets provide the best outcomes by most people’s metrics: If free markets work, then research into the economics of free markets will be the best research.

          1. PK’s nobel work was hardly politically neutral nor was it free market.

            In fact it was a classic Disney economics excuse for market management.

  4. You clearly have never read Ostrom’s work. She clearly writes in her book “Governing the Commons” that the problems of free riders and usage controls become severe problems when a large number of people use the resource. Her work only reflects that localized resources can be controlled by a localized group of people and that a centralized government out of touch with that can do more harm (not WILL, she cites cases where government did improve the situation). She doesn’t even address anything beyond common resources so you can’t use her work to generalize about government on the whole. In fact, her work does give examples of where government regulation can be effective.

    Why would I expect John Stossel to read her work before actually talking about it though? Or make sure he accurately represents her views on government control and regulation before hijacking it for his own ridiculous agenda?

    Silly me.

    Oh, and Miss. Freedom Ostrom is apparently a hard-core libertarian though and realizes that the current politicians are trying to just ruin everything through power grabs and the government regulation she despite. This is evident by her campaign contributions to democrats, obviously:


    1. Olstrom herself is not a libertarian (and nobody has suggested she is). But her work lends support to the libertarian (as well as anarchist) theory that that people can devise mechanisms for governing themselves without the aid of a central authority to police their actions.

      The notion that governance of the commons works best on the local level fits with the concept of decentralizing power – reserving more power to the states, and in turn cities and counties, and finally individuals. That 9th and 10th amendment stuff nobody cares about.

  5. Speaking about Stossel, any chance that he’d like to walk back his recent comments about Lou Dobbs? If we’re going to blame anyone, Stossel would be pretty low on the list since few people care what he thinks. But, it might be a good PR move.

    P.S. In case anyone replies to this, their responses will almost assuredly be ad homs, thereby conceding my points and showing the childish, anti-intellectual nature of libertarians. Dozens of comments here have shown that the phrase “fascist libertarian” isn’t an oxymoron.

    1. I don’t know what you said above, I didn’t read it. However I felt compelled to respond to say shut up, just because of your repeated posting of the childish PS. So without further ado,

      Shut the fuck up!

  6. Lonewacko shot at Loud Dobbs’ house. Clearly a False Flag move.

    Also, STFULW

    1. That should be Lou Dobbs but I think I like my typo…

      1. I like your typo, too.

  7. The funny thing is, her agenda is a collectivist one. It just illustrates how asinine ideas fall apart when taken to their logical conclusions. The basic progressive argument is that people are animals who aren’t fit to govern themselves. Somehow this makes them fit to govern each other.

  8. Freedom does work. But, in freedom, where is the room for government power and control? That is why the government won’t allow it.

  9. The basic progressive argument is that people are animals who aren’t fit to govern themselves. Somehow this makes them fit to govern each other.

    +1, as the kids might say.

  10. I love this article.

    As proof of Ms. Ostrom’s point, I offer up the “Ducks Unlimited” wetlands conservation and restoration project. It’s a private entity spearheading the charge at preventing a wetlands version of the tragedy of the commons.

    1. The Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation does great work as a private entity (although they do partner with The State at times) on elk habitat preservation/restoration.

  11. Ostrom’s genesis for her work may certainly have been her collectivist ideology, but that doesn’t mean that her research can not be used to benefit individualists. If the researchers ideology going into a study (or coming out of a study) is going to determine who and how data can be used, then how could unbiased scientific analysis ever occur? “I am sorry you believe in something counter to me so you can’t use my science.”

    No one is saying that Ostrom is a individualist. What they are saying is that Ostrom’s work is further evidence that individualists are correct in their position that decentralized power can be more affective.

    Ostrom is no “Libertopian Diety” by any stretch, but sometimes our adversaries provide us with the best weapons to use against them.

    1. Tholan|10.29.09 @ 3:13PM|#
      What they are saying is that Ostrom’s ork is further evidence that individualists are correct in their position that decentralized power can be more affective.

      This is a complete straw man. No one claims that decentralized power cannot be more effective. Liberals seek to spread power among several levels, in a manner that best fits that particular circumstance. It is libertarians who (wrongly) believe that decentralized power is ALWAYS better that are the problem.

      1. It’s liberals who think centralized power cures all ailments, that’s the problem.

      2. “Liberals seek to spread power among several levels, in a manner that best fits that particular circumstance.”

        What liberals seek to spread power among all levels? Show me concrete examples.

        No Libertarian worth his salt will hold such a staunch view as you describe: “Always.” You are the one who is made of straw.

        It is more consistent for you to say that all libertarians are naturally distrustful of any concentrations of power. This does not mean by any stretch that decentralization is always the most effective means; but what you must understand is the difference between over-reaching regulation and efficiency driving standardization.

        1. ALSO… I should note that for many libertarians, it’s not merely a question of “efficiency” or “best outcomes”, especially when most of us recognize that any superlative term like “best” is a subjective position related to a person’s individual values. Freedom is not only a way to achieve great outcomes for most everyone involved, it’s also a way to allow people to decide for themselves what versions of the “best” they wish to pursue.

          Liberals (Chad in particular) presumes that there is some widespread agreement on all social or political problems and that we can merely use what he considers to be utilitarian solutions to solve them. The concept that perhaps not everyone agrees with his definition of what’s best for society never enters into the equation.

          1. Probably where I, like Chad, differ with you is that I would prefer a less diverse distribution of resources. It’s just that I know centralized power can never and has never accomplished this.

            I used to be a liberal (I guess many who come out of public schools starts that way) but it required an impossible amount of mental compartmentalization to continually ignore reality.

      3. It is libertarians who (wrongly) believe that decentralized power is ALWAYS better that are the problem.

        It’s not wrong and history shows that.

        Liberals seek to spread power among several level

        And yet always make power more centralized. One prime difference between libs and liberals is that liberal policies accomplish exactly what they say they oppose. Where libertarian policies actually do best accomplish the goals that liberals say they promote.

  12. I agree, it HAS to happen, there is just no other way!


  13. I’m happy to read this article, but the comments suggest that libertarians and progressives alike are fighting to make sure various important people are in their camp. Why can’t intellectual progress occur independently of political ideology? Why can’t some libertarians value the contributions to knowledge by collectivists, and why can’t trolls like Morris and Mr. Factchecker appreciate that some libertarians do? And do they appreciate the irony that complaining about ideological purity is a favorite technique of ideologues? How do you handle the cognitive dissonance, believing you’re open-minded, even as you rail against open-minded libertarians?

    I’m a libertarian and I value (at least somewhat) the intellectual contributions of Marx and even that bastard Keynes to our understanding of the world around us. Suck on it, everyone!

  14. New at Reason: John Stossel on Why Self-Governance Works


    Given the success this country has had with the Police and Internal affairs…I don’t c why people wouldn’t think that ‘Self-Governance’ wouldn’t work.

    Perhaps we should model out self-governance after the Police Department.

    1. If you like the government’s police, you will love the governmenty’s health care.

  15. “Liberals seek to spread power among several levels”

    As long as it puts the jackboot to the private sector, you’re all for it.

  16. I love it when a psychologist gets a prize for economics and a conservative mutates the event into facts.
    Let me refer you to the findings of Setphen Pratt, a behavioral ecologist who reported in Scientific American, July 2, 09: Mindless Collectives Better at Rational Decision-Making Than Brainy Individuals. “Ant colonies make perfectly rational choices when facing tough dilemmas, not because they are knowledgeable Instead , when ants are grouped together, a kind of ‘wisdom of the crowds’ avoids the kind of mistakes that individuals can make.”
    A small group, like the Supreme Court, the Congress, or the President fail to make the better choice given two equal choices and an inferior choice until it is compared to the originals. This is an irrational act that explains how finding out how such a choice is made offers insight into the decision-making system system.
    Unlike the politicians and the theologians, whose predetermined conditions, prejudices, and convictions blind the believer into making irrational judgments, the system of mass wisdom is more successful than elitist leadership.

    1. a kind of ‘wisdom of the crowds’ avoids the kind of mistakes that individuals can make.”

      Much like the wisdom of markets is superior to the decisions of a single individual as head of state (even an elected one).

      Market order emerges from the decisions of many millions of individuals, not from a central leader dictating the correct way for society to be organized.

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  18. So, some egg-head with a degree “discovers” what I’ve been preaching for, what, 10 or 20 years? Took ’em long enough.

  19. And here is what I’ve been suggesting as an answer to impending socialist health care since Hillary started pushing it:


  20. I am amazed at the simplistic answers to Stossel’s report, and to Ostrom’s work, and on this site. Did anyone really study the Tradgedy of the Commons? The whole point is that mutual management works well in a small community, that is, until a free rider percieves a value that is worth risking a ‘war’ over. Then, in classic Hobbesian fashion, all those mutual sharing folks are run over by the maurauder at the gate; no more commons, no more cooperation.

    Certainly, ancient communities’ very survivial depends upon the teaching of generational respect; and often have long established traditions honed towards community stability; in this case, living well is a great incentive to cooperation. And additionally, it’s easy to share the commons and live well when greedy maurauders percieve no value to your commons.

    Having not read the book, but having been heartily tired of Libertarians’ ‘head in the sand’ strategies, I see nothing new, here, to solving the free rider issue, just examples of the cases where local cooperation can work. No one has ever disputed that. But,even Hobbes could see in the 1600s that small groups of people might live well and peacefully for a time. But, eventually, some self-interested sociopath can- and often will- come in a steal your junk, overgraze your feilds, and leave you to starve. Then what?

    It’s Pollyanna self-comfort to hope that a bigger, badder warlord/con-artist/theif won’t trick you out of the commons. Complain about Democratic Socialism all you want, but, good luck, libertarians; you’re just eventual meat for the next Mega predator.

  21. His name is J?hn St?ssel and he’s a R?ck’n’R?ll her?!!!

  22. The NFL and pro baseball manage their market… err, commons in much the way Ostrom describes. Of course, they have to have an anti-trust exemption from Congress in order to do so. Organized crime syndicates also manage their markets… excuse me again, commons in the same way as well. Organized crime doesn’t have the validation of the state or an anti-trust exemption so they “craft their own rules, which frequently offset the perverse incentives they face in their particular physical and cultural settings. These rules may be almost invisible to outsiders. …”. Furthermore, the “owners themselves run the association and handle the monitoring. Sanctions are imposed for violation of the rules, but compliance is high.”

  23. Sounds like basic communism to me.

  24. When you look at a trade agreement like NAFTA, it’s about that thick (holds his hands about?

  25. My only point is that if you take the Bible straight, as I’m sure many of Reasons readers do, you will see a lot of the Old Testament stuff as absolutely insane. Even some cursory knowledge of Hebrew and doing some mathematics and logic will tell you that you really won’t get the full deal by just doing regular skill english reading for those books. In other words, there’s more to the books of the Bible than most will ever grasp. I’m not concerned that Mr. Crumb will go to hell or anything crazy like that! It’s just that he, like many types of religionists, seems to take it literally, take it straight…the Bible’s books were not written by straight laced divinity students in 3 piece suits who white wash religious beliefs as if God made them with clothes on…the Bible’s books were written by people with very different mindsets…

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