"He's a snake in the grass, I tell ya guys; he may look dumb but that's just a disguise; he's a mastermind in the ways of espionage." Charlie Daniels, "Uneasy Rider" Tragedy of the panicked enviro III: learning from Elinor Ostrom about cooperative action - TT's Lost in Tokyo

Tragedy of the panicked enviro III: learning from Elinor Ostrom about cooperative action

This is the second follow-up to my post "Grist and the tragedy of the panicked enviro", where I try to clarify the institutional frameworks for understanding and addressing resource problems, in response to confusion in comments by others.

T Worstall Posted 5:27 pm
27 Aug 2009

TokyoTom makes most of the points I would wish to make. Except for this one: you clearly do not understand what Hardin was saying about the tragedy of the commons. For example, he made very clear that there are two possible solutions to the degradation of an open access resource. We can have social (socialist) regulations and limitations or we can have private (capitalist) property solutions. Those are his descriptions BTW. Which works best depends upon the society and the resource. He emphatically did NOT say that pricvate property sultions were the only ones possible. And nor does any economist say that private property solutions are the only ones either possible or desirable. Try reading some Ronald Coase on transaction costs to see why.


TokyoTom Posted 10:03 pm
27 Aug 2009

Let me add some further nuance to Mr. Worstall`s comment by saying that Hardin`s fertile observations have fuelled extensive further research on common property problems, with Elinor Ostrom being recognized as a leading light.

Here is one general bibliography on commons research: http://www.indiana.edu/~workshop/wsl/tragedy.htm

Ostrom has refined Hardin`s work in the following way (quoting from a review of Ostrom`s 1990 ground-breaking and extensively researched book, GOVERNING THE COMMONS, The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action):

Ostrom uses the term "common pool resources" to denote natural resources used by many individuals in common, such as fisheries, groundwater basins, and irrigation systems. Such resources have long been subject to overexploitation and misuse by individuals acting in their own best interests. Conventional solutions typically involve either centralized governmental regulation or privatization of the resource. But, according to Ostrom, there is a third approach to resolving the problem of the commons: the design of durable cooperative institutions that are organized and governed by the resource users themselves.

"The central question in this study," she writes, "is how a group of principals who are in an interdependent situation can organize and govern themselves to obtain continuing joint benefits when all face temptations to free-ride, shirk, or otherwise act opportunistically."

The heart of this study is an in-depth analysis of several long-standing and viable common property regimes, including Swiss grazing pastures, Japanese forests, and irrigation systems in Spain and the Philippines. Although Ostrom insists that each of these situations must be evaluated on its own terms, she delineates a set of eight "design principles" common to each of the cases. These include clearly defined boundaries, monitors who are either resource users or accountable to them, graduated sanctions, and mechanisms dominated by the users themselves to resolve conflicts and to alter the rules. The challenge, she observes, is to foster contingent self-commitment among the members ....

Throughout the book, she stresses the dangers of overly generalized theories of collective action, particularly when used "metaphorically" as the foundation for public policy. The three dominant models — the tragedy of the commons, the prisoners's dilemma, and the logic of collective action — are all inadequate, she says, for they are based on the free-rider problem where individual, rational, resource users act against the best interest of the users collectively. These models are not necessarily wrong, Ostrom states, rather the conditions under which they hold are very particular. They apply only when the many, independently acting individuals involved have high discount rates and little mutual trust, no capacity to communicate or to enter into binding agreements, and when they do not arrange for monitoring and enforcing mechanisms to avoid overinvestment and overuse.

Ostrom concludes that "if this study does nothing more than shatter the convictions of many policy analysts that the only way to solve common pool resource problems is for external authorities to impose full private property rights or centralized regulation, it will have accomplished one major purpose."

A profile of Ostrom, who is a member of the National Academies of Science and and Editor of its Proceedings, is here: http://www.pubmedcentral.nih.gov/articlerender.fcgi?artid=1748208

Her work can be found here: http://scholar.google.co.jp/scholar?q=Ostrom,+Elinor&hl=en&btnG=Search and

here: http://de.scientificcommons.org/elinor_ostrom

One thing worth noting is that the historical and ongoing records are rife with examples - such as our crashing local fisheries - where government intervention has done more harm than good.  In these cases and in others, Ostrom introduces an analytical approach that is acceptable widely across the political spectrum, even if differences in opinion will remain.  See, for example, this discussion at libertarian-leaning George Mason U:  http://www.theihs.org/bunnygame/

Published Sat, Aug 29 2009 5:53 AM by TokyoTom