Elinor Ostrom

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= renowned Nobel prize-winning academic and author on the Commons


From Wikipedia:

"Elinor Ostrom (August 7, 1933 - June 12, 2012) was an American political scientist. She was awarded the 2009 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences, which she shared with Oliver E. Williamson, for "her analysis of economic governance, especially the commons". She is the first woman to win the prize in this category. Ostrom was part of the faculty of both Indiana University and Arizona State University. She was the Arthur F. Bentley Professor of Political Science and Co-Director of the Workshop in Political Theory and Policy Analysis at Indiana University in Bloomington and Research Professor and the Founding Director of the Center for the Study of Institutional Diversity at Arizona State University in Tempe." (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elinor_Ostrom)

Eight Principles

(This section taken from Wikipedia, 2019)

Ostrom identified eight "design principles" of stable local common pool resource management:[1] She also discussed the eight "design principles" on Big Think.[2]

  1. Clearly defined (clear definition of the contents of the common pool resource and effective exclusion of external un-entitled parties);
  2. The appropriation and provision of common resources that are adapted to local conditions;
  3. Collective-choice arrangements that allow most resource appropriators to participate in the decision-making process;
  4. Effective monitoring by monitors who are part of or accountable to the appropriators;
  5. A scale of graduated sanctions for resource appropriators who violate community rules;
  6. Mechanisms of conflict resolution that are cheap and of easy access;
  7. Self-determination of the community recognized by higher-level authorities; and
  8. In the case of larger common-pool resources, organization in the form of multiple layers of nested enterprises, with small local CPRs at the base level.


"Fran: Many people associate “the commons” with Garrett Hardin’s famous essay, “The Tragedy of the Commons.” He says that if, for example, you have a pasture that everyone in a village has access to, then each person will put as many cows on that land as he can to maximize his own benefit, and pretty soon the pasture will be overgrazed and become worthless. What’s the difference between your perspective and Hardin’s?

Elinor: Well, I don’t see the human as hopeless. There’s a general tendency to presume people just act for short-term profit. But anyone who knows about small-town businesses and how people in a community relate to one another realizes that many of those decisions are not just for profit and that humans do try to organize and solve problems.

If you are in a fishery or have a pasture and you know your family’s long-term benefit is that you don’t destroy it, and if you can talk with the other people who use that resource, then you may well figure out rules that fit that local setting and organize to enforce them. But if the community doesn’t have a good way of communicating with each other or the costs of self-organization are too high, then they won’t organize, and there will be failures.

Fran: So, are you saying that Hardin is sometimes right?

Elinor: Yes. People say I disproved him, and I come back and say “No, that’s not right. I’ve not disproved him. I’ve shown that his assertion that common property will always be degraded is wrong.” But he was addressing a problem of considerable significance that we need to take seriously. It’s just that he went too far. He said people could never manage the commons well.

At the Workshop we’ve done experiments where we create an artificial form of common property such as an imaginary fishery or pasture, and we bring people into a lab and have them make decisions about that property. When we don’t allow any communication among the players, then they overharvest [the commons]. But when people can communicate, particularly on a face-to-face basis, and say, “Well, gee, how about if we do this? How about we do that?” Then they can come to an agreement.

Fran: But what about the “free-rider” problem where some people abide by the rules and some people don’t? Won’t the whole thing fall apart?

Elinor: Well if the people don’t communicate and get some shared norms and rules, that’s right, you’ll have that problem. But if they get together and say, “Hey folks, this is a project that we’re all going to have to contribute to. Now, let’s figure it out,” they can make it work. For example, if it’s a community garden, they might say, “Do we agree every Saturday morning we’re all going to go down to the community garden, and we’re going to take roll and we’re going to put the roll up on a bulletin board?” A lot of communities have figured out subtle ways of making everyone contribute, because if they don’t, those people are noticeable.

Fran: So public shaming and public honoring are one key to managing the commons?

Elinor: Shaming and honoring are very important. We don’t have as much of an understanding of that. There are scholars who understand that, but that’s not been part of our accepted way of thinking about collective action.

Fran: Do you have a favorite example of where people have been able to self-organize to manage property in common?

Elinor: One that I read early on that just unglued me because I wasn’t expecting it was the work of Robert Netting, an anthropologist who had been studying the alpine commons for a very long time. He studied Swiss peasants and then studied in Africa too. He was quite disturbed that people were saying that Africans were primitive because they used common property so frequently and they didn’t know about the benefits of private property. The implication was we’ve got to impose private property rules on them. Netting said, “Are the Swiss peasants stupid? They use common property also.”

Let’s think about this a bit. In the valleys, they use private property, while up in the alpine areas, they use common property. So the same people know about private property and common property, but they choose to use common property for the alpine areas. Why? Well, the alpine areas are what Netting calls “spotty.” The rainfall is high in one section one year, and the snow is great, and it’s rich. But the other parts of the area are dry. Now if you put fences up for private property, then Smith’s got great grass one year he can’t even use it all and Brown doesn’t have any. So, Netting argued, there are places where it makes sense to have an open pasture rather than a closed one. Then he gives you a very good idea of the wide diversity of the particular rules that people have used for managing that common land."

No Optimal Solutions

"Given the complexity and changing nature of the problems involved in coping with climate change, there are no “optimal” solutions for making substantial reductions in the level of greenhouse gases emitted into the atmosphere. A major reduction in emissions is definitely needed, however. The advantage of a multi-scale approach is that it encourages experimental efforts at multiple levels, as well as the development of methods for assessing the benefits and costs of particular strategies adopted in one type of ecosystem and comparing these with results obtained in other ecosystems. A strong commitment to finding ways of reducing individual emissions is an important element for coping with climate change. Building such a commitment, and the trust that others are also taking responsibility, can be more effectively undertaken in small- to medium-scale governance units that are linked through information networks and monitoring at all levels." Ostrom, E. A Multi-Scale Approach to Coping with Climate Change and Other Collective Action Problems. http://www.thesolutionsjournal.com/node/565/cite "


Anticapitalist Critique of Ostrom's work on the commons

Summary by Sophie Ball:

"Elinor Ostrom is perhaps the most celebrated pioneer of work around the commons in the mainstream, receiving the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences in 2009 ‘for her analysis of economic governance, especially the commons'. She is recognised by Caffentzis as ‘the major theorist of the capitalist use of the commons’ (Caffentzis 2010:30), and by Federici as ‘the leading voice in this field’ (Federici 2011). Federici includes Ostrom’s award in a list of indicators that ‘a re-valorization of the commons has become trendy among mainstream economists and capitalist planners’ (Ibid). The ‘adaption of the idea of the commons to market interests’ is evident in ‘the language of the commons (that) has been appropriated by the World Bank and the United Nations’, while we also ‘witness the growing academic literature on the subject and its cognates: social capital, gift economies, altruism.’ She notes that even The Economist ‘cautiously joined the chorus’ in an article in its July 21, 2008 issue. Like Caffentzis, she argues that the commons is being used to save capitalism from itself, for capitalist planners ‘have also recognised that, carried to the extreme, the commodification of social relations has self-defeating consequences.’ They have recognised that the commons continue to provide capitalist accumulation with a source for ‘the free appropriation of immense quantities of labour and resources that must appear as externalities of the market’ and therefore embrace the commons."

Anticapitalist Defense of Ostrom's work on the commons

Summary by Sophie Ball:

"For Federici and Caffentzis, and also De Angelis (see chapter 2 and below), Ostrom is a figure head for the ongoing capitalist exploitation of the commons. It is therefore interesting that an article appeared in the Morning Star celebrating the awarding of the Nobel prize to Ostrom. The author of the article was Derek Wall, economics lecturer, writer and member of the Green Party. I should also mention, with reference to the concerns I expressed in chapter one, that this article provides one of the best introductions to notions of the commons that I have come across, written in clear, ‘every day’, ‘human’ language. This article thereby meets the requirements I explored in my opening chapter, in that it is successful at communicating specialist arguments to a non-specialist audience and avoids the use of jargon and academic clichés which, as was discussed in chapter 1, academia does not do enough of. Wall provides an overview of Ostrom’s work and some examples of its influence on policy, relating Ostrom’s outputs to those of Marx, Chavez and Castro, making this the only piece of writing that I have come across in which Ostrom receives praise from an anti-capitalist perspective :

‘Many socialists will find her scepticism about the state unpalatable. They should not. Marxists recognise that property rights are key and that communism is about the introduction of communal property rights. Ostrom and Marx repeat the same words. A panacea or utopia is impossible because a thinker cannot second guess the democratic creativity of citizens... And visionary political leaders such as Hugo Chavez and Raul Castro have been putting her ideas of a grass roots, diverse and ecological commons into action. Castro's land reform gives peasants land but rejects privatisation and encourages ecological use. And Chavez's 21st century socialism based on communal councils is about taking power from the state and giving it to people. In the Peruvian Amazon, the indigenous activists are using Ostrom's work to challenge plans to privatise their commons in the rainforests.’

Wall acknowledges the unorthodoxy of his position in this extract, and defends it."

Neoliberal connections of the Ostroms

Kevin Flanagan:

"Both Elinor and Vincent Ostrom were intellectual peers of James Buchanan and they served as presidents of the Public Choice Society which he founded. Buchanan was a significant member of the Mont Pelerin Society along with Friedrich Hayek. https://publicchoicesociety.org/about I wouldn't go so far as to say that Ostrom was a Neoliberal and I haven't studied her work or Buchanan enough to be able to compare or contrast.

Public choice is all about the use of economic methods to analyse incentive structures in political institutions and of course game theory is a big part of that. This assumes actors to be self serving and that this is 'rational' by contrast to conceptions of actors as moral agents with the capacity to act in the interest of the common good which is 'irrational'.

Derek Wall who spent time with Ostrom has written some excellent books about her life and work and documents her intellectual influence including "The Sustainable Economics of Elinor Ostrom" which I can recommend. He really is the expert on this topic. He has a broad understanding of the history of the commons and its many traditions and having spent time with and studied Ostroms work he is convinced of the significance of her contribution and in her personal integrity.

Buchanan is also a Nobel winner and can fairly be called an arch Neoliberal. Nancy McClean has just published a book titled Democracy in Chains and describes his ideas as deeply anti-democratic. Effectively Buchanans constitutionalism is designed to find ways to protect the interests of the 1% from the 'takers' aka the rest of us. This is a man who advised Pinochet on his Chilean constitution and was funded by Charles Koch at George Mason University. Koch in turn has adopted Buchanans ideas and they have been a central component in the ideological toolkit of the radical right who use them to undermine all manor of social and environmental protections.

In this interview with McClean on Democracy Now there is a short clip of Buchanan explaining that what he really sought to do was undermine this very idea of the public interest or in other words the common good.

Video - for the Buchanan quote skip to minute 27: https://www.democracynow.org/shows/2017/6/29?autostart=true

It's ironic that his ideas for institutional analysis that is public choice as adopted by Ostrom are being used in defense of that very notion of the common good.

The focus on methodological individualism and game theory is limiting. Also analysis of the commons solely in institutional terms overlooks the broader social, historical, cultural, political and environmental factors that can have a role in informing norms and motivations for commoning." (personal email, August 2017)

More Information


  1. Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action, 1990 Cambridge University Press
  2. Ending The Tragedy of The Commons 2012-04-23 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Qr5Q3VvpI7w