The Victory of the CommonsNobel Prize-winning economist Elinor Ostrom proved that people can—and do—work together to manage commonly-held resources without degrading them.
Document Actions Email Print Feed Share by Jay Walljasper posted Oct 27, 2009
The biggest roadblock standing in the way of many people’s recognition of the importance of the commons came tumbling down when Indiana University professor Elinor Ostrom won the Nobel Prize for Economics.
Garrett Hardin described the Tragedy of the Commons with a hypothetical example of shared herding land: If all herders make the individually rational economic decision of increasing the number of cows they graze on the land, the collective effect will deplete or destroy the common.
Photo by Brenda Anderson
Over many decades, Ostrom has documented how various communities manage common resources—grazing lands, forests, irrigation waters, fisheries—equitably and sustainably over the long term. The Nobel Committee’s recognition of her work effectively debunks popular theories about the Tragedy of the Commons, which hold that private property is the only effective method to prevent finite resources from being ruined or depleted.
Awarding the world’s most prestigious economics prize to a scholar who champions cooperative behavior greatly boosts the legitimacy of the commons as a framework for solving our social and environmental problems. Ostrom’s work also challenges the current economic orthodoxy that there are few, if any, alternatives to privatization and markets in generating wealth and human well being.
The Tragedy of the Commons refers to a scenario in which commonly held land is inevitably degraded because everyone in a community is allowed to graze livestock there. This parable was popularized by wildlife biologist Garrett Hardin in the late 1960s, and was embraced as a principle by the emerging environmental movement. But Ostrom’s research refutes this abstract concept with the real life experience from places like Nepal, Kenya and Guatemala.
“When local users of a forest have a long-term perspective, they are more likely to monitor each other’s use of the land, developing rules for behavior,” she cites as an example. “It is an area that standard market theory does not touch.”
Garrett Hardin himself later revised his own view, noting that what he described was actually the Tragedy of the Unmanaged Commons.
“What we have ignored is what citizens can do and the importance of real involvement.” -Elinor OstromColumbia University economist Joseph Stiglitz, also a Nobel winner, commented, “Conservatives used the Tragedy of the Commons to argue for property rights, and that efficiency was achieved as people were thrown off the commons…What Ostrom has demonstrated is the existence of social control mechanisms that regulate the use of the commons without having to resort to property rights.”
The Nobel Committee’s choice of Ostrom is significant considering that many winners of the prize since it was initiated in 1968 have been zealous advocates of unrestricted markets, such as Milton Friedman, whose selection helped fuel the rise of market theory as the be-all, end-all of economics since the 1980s. Policies based upon this narrow worldview sparked the rise of corporate power and the diminishment of government’s role in protecting the commons.
While right-wing thinkers scoffed at the possibility of resources being shared in a way that maintains the common good, arguing that private property is the only practical strategy to prevent this tragedy, Ostrom’s scholarship shows otherwise.
“What we have ignored is what citizens can do and the importance of real involvement of the people involved,” she explains.
YES! Magazine's special issue, Reclaiming the Commons
A classic example of this is an acequia, a centuries-old tradition of a cooperative irrigation in New Mexico and Colorado where the small flow of water available for agriculture is allocated by the community as a whole through a democratic process.
Ostrom is the first woman to be awarded the economics prize, which some observers say helps explain her emphasis on the role of people’s relationships in our economic arrangements rather than the focus on individualized market choices expounded by many male winners of the Nobel.
Equally noteworthy is the fact that Ostrom was not trained as an economist, but as a political scientist—a factor that may be even more useful in explaining her outside-the-box approach to economics.
Yale economist Robert Schiller, quoted in the New York Times, welcomed the merging of the two fields. “Economics has become too isolated and stuck on the view that markets are efficient and self-regulating. It has derailed our thinking.”
Elinor Ostrom has always been explicit in recognizing the importance of the commons—she helped found the International Association for the Study of the Commons, also based at Indiana University—and her selection as a Nobel Laureate marks an early milestone in the emergence of a commons-based society. Her works shows that our social, environmental and personal advancement depends on the vitality of the commons.
Jay Walljasper is the author of The Great Neighborhood Book, a senior editor for the Project for Public Spaces, and a fellow and editor for OnTheCommons.org, where this article originally appeared.
YES! Magazine encourages you to make free use of this article by taking these easy steps. Walljasper, J. (2009, October 27). The Victory of the Commons. Retrieved May 09, 2012, from YES! Magazine Web site: http://www.yesmagazine.org/new-economy/the-victory-of-the-commons. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License
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Reader CommentsReawakening of the commons
Posted by Chuck Gribble at Nov 19, 2009 12:21 PM
It's heartening to see the Nobel committee's choice for the economics. Yet I fear or lament the the length of time it will take for the "me" culture to make a transition to the "us" culture. Not in my lifetime.
chuck gribble, minneapolis
What's been debunked, again?
Posted by Urgelt at Jan 26, 2011 02:36 AM
I have no intention of diminishing in any way the value of Dr. Ostram's work. But this whole notion of "debunking" Garrett Hardin's essay needs a little closer examination.
Hardin's essay simply says that a commons - the way he used the term, a commons lacks access and use restrictions - will become fouled. This idea has not been debunked at all, not by Dr. Ostram and not by anyone else.
Only by applying access and use restrictions can a commons be preserved from fouling, and then, it's not truly a commons any longer, not in the sense Hardin used the word.
Neo-liberal economists seized on Hardin's seminal essay to justify a broad program of privatization. But Hardin's essay barely mentions privatization in passing as just one way to restrict access to a commons. His work has been misinterpreted and misused, in other words, by neo-liberal economists.
In the most important commons of our day - the oceans, the atmosphere, and our very population - access and use restrictions are slight. These commons are not managed, at least not effectively, and the result is the unfolding fouling of these commons, exactly as Hardin predicted.
By no means was Hardin arguing that the answer to preserving these commons was to privatize them all. But under his thesis, these commons cannot be allowed to remain unfettered by *some* sort of access restrictions without them becoming fouled.
Does anyone seriously doubt he's right? Not me.
I think it's most accurate to say that Dr. Ostram has successfully debunked neo-liberal economics and its strident cry to privatize everything. Hardin still stands tall as an author of disturbingly clear vision.
Hardin debunked Hardin
Posted by Justin at Sep 23, 2011 01:38 AM
While agreeing with the main point'Urgelt' is making. It should be noted that 30 years later Hardin realised he had been wrong to criticise commons regimes in this way. He realised that the problem was an unmanaged commons, an open-access regime, not the commons itself:
“To judge from the critical literature,” he wrote in the May 1, 1998 issue of Science, “the weightiest mistake in my synthesizing paper was the omission of the modifying adjective ‘unmanaged’.” 
Hardin debunked Hardin?
Posted by Urgelt at Sep 23, 2011 02:15 AM
Hardin's regret at not specifying the adjective "unmanaged" in his original work is not a retraction. It's a clarification, and a proper one.
It's a clarification which ought not to be required, because, by traditional definition, a "commons" without specified usage restrictions is assumed to be unmanaged. But the clarification *is* required, alas, as Hardin finally realized, because neo-liberal economists ran wild over his lack of explicitness and twisted the meaning of his work.
It really is time to stop sullying Hardin's reputation. The academic crime was not his, but the neo-liberal economists who misused his work.
Good to clarify what we mean by 'commons'
Posted by Justin at Sep 23, 2011 02:46 AM
We agree on the neoliberals misuse of the 'commons' concept, and we both appreciate Hardin's ability and willingness to clarify his concepts.
However, I think we'll just have to disagree over what 'commons' traditionally refers to. For you "by traditional definition, a "commons" without specified usage restrictions is assumed to be unmanaged" whereas all the anthropological literature defines a commons as something that is held in common by a particular community or group of community and is by definition, managed by them.
Wikipedia picks up on this when it defines commons as follows: "The commons is terminology referring to resources that are owned in common or shared between or among communities populations. These resources are said to be "held in common" and can include everything from natural resources and common land to software. The commons contains public property and private property, over which people have certain traditional rights."
Let's agree to disagree over this point. I am not supporting the neoliberals misuse of Hardin, nor doubting his contribution, but the 'tradition' to which you refer is, I think, the one that the neoliberals emerged from, in the deeper tradition commmons are by definition commonly managed.
Posted by Urgelt at Sep 23, 2011 04:33 AM
In a commons, usage restrictions *are* management of the commons.
When usage restrictions are applied, whether informally or formally, whether spontaneous or planned, these restrictions have one purpose: to preserve the value of the commons.
Do you see? Where usage restrictions are applied, the commons is managed towards a definable goal (to preserve value). Where usage restrictions do not exist, the commons is unmanaged because there are no access rules aimed at preserving value.
Hardin was clarifying, not retracting, his work, and he only felt it necessary because of the way his work had been misused.
Sorry if I seem to repeat myself. I'm banging my head against my desk trying to figure out how to communicate this very simple idea. :-)
Posted by Justin at Sep 23, 2011 05:09 AM
(-; Upoaded 3 December 2012