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Elinor Ostrom

A Shout-Out for Ostrom

Maya Brahmam's picture

Elinor Ostrom, the only woman to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Economics died on June 12 in Indiana. According to various press reports, Ostrom shocked her peers when she was catapulted to fame, because, in a field mostly dominated by men, she reached well beyond the usual mathematical modeling of economists.

Ostrom’s best-known research was on the management of the commons. As noted in Slate, “Standard economic thinking about commons focuses on the idea of a ‘tragedy of the commons’…” According to many economists, individuals acting in their own self-interest, would ultimately deplete a resource like a common pasture, which is open to everyone. This idea was used to demonstrate the need for government regulation or control by private industry. 

Institutions for Imperfect, Unpredictable People

Darshana Patel's picture

Since time immemorial, human beings have been defined by the theory of the state of nature.  The theory goes that - without an external, governing hand - humans enter a state of anarchy. Decades of work by Professor Elinor Ostrom, however, have gone into proving the limitations of this theory. In Crowding Out Citizenship, Ostrom describes the many assumptions behind the way policy textbooks and planners view human behavior:
 

“Centrally designed and externally implemented rules-based incentives – both positive and negative – are seen as universally needed to overcome all types of social dilemmas….The state is viewed as a substitute for the short-comings of individual behavior and the presumed failure of community. The universal need for externally implemented incentives is based, however, on a single model of rational behavior which presumes short-term, self-interested pursuit of material outcomes as the only mode of behavior adopted by individuals.”
 

“Leviathan is alive and well in our policy textbooks,” Ostrom says.
 

Making Parliaments Work through Better Communication

Paul Mitchell's picture

Governments and development agencies have devoted many years and hundreds of millions of dollars developing democratic governance in countries around the world. The idea of creating democracies is still the primary driver of many governance improvement agendas. Clearly, democratic systems often bring with them improvements in governance and economic development, but simply putting a democracy into place is not enough.
 

Last week, this blog featured a quote by Elinor Ostrom, which contains an interesting sentence: “Yet I worry that the need for continuous civic engagement, intellectual struggle, and vigilance is not well understood in some of our mature democracies and is not transmitted to citizens and officials in new democracies….We have to avoid slipping into a naïve sense that democracy – once established – will continue on its own momentum." 

Quote of the Week

Darshana Patel's picture

"The sustenance of a democratic system is similar to the sustenance of an initially successful family firm.  The first generation works very hard to build it up. The second generation has usually witnessed some of the struggles of the first generation and usually is able to continue the effort started by the first generation. But when the firm is turned over to the third, fourth, or fifth generation, problems can occur. Children are born already rich and without a deep understanding of the struggle that it took to build the enterprise in the first place. What took many years to build can be dissipated within a short time….I share a deep conviction that democratic systems of government are the highest forms of human governance yet developed. Yet I worry that the need for continuous civic engagement, intellectual struggle, and vigilance is not well understood in some of our mature democracies and is not transmitted to citizens and officials in new democracies….We have to avoid slipping into a naïve sense that democracy – once established – will continue on its own momentum."  Elinor Ostrom 2000, The Future of Democracy

Photo Credit: PNAS