Governing the Commons

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Book: Governing The Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action. By Elinor Ostrom. Cambridge University Press, 1990



"Any group that attempts to manage a common resource (e.g., aquifers, judicial systems, pastures) for optimal sustainable production must solve a set of problems in order to create institutions for collective action; there is some evidence that following a small set of design principles in creating these institutions can overcome these problems." (


Scott London:

"This study looks at the problem of collectively managing shared resources. Because of the book's unassuming nature and rather formal scholarly tone, it's easy to pass it over as just another academic work. But together with such books as Herman Daly and John Cobb's For the Common Good, Paul Hawken's The Ecology of Commerce and Vandana Shiva's work on restoring the commons, I consider it one of the more far-sighted and genuinely significant works to emerge in recent years on environmental resource management.

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: "I will commit myself to follow the set of rules we have devised in all instances except dire emergencies if the rest of those affected make a similar commitment and act accordingly."

This book is aimed chiefly at policy-makers, bureaucrats, and resource users, rather than scholars. Ostrom is concerned with the effective management of common property resources, rather than explanatory theories. 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." (


By the Cooperation Commons at


  • People are trapped by the Prisoner's Dilemma only if they treat themselves as prisoners by passively accepting the suboptimum strategy the dilemma locks them into, but if they try to work out a contract with the other players, or find the ones most likely to cooperate, or agree on rules for punishing cheaters, or artificially change the incentive ratios - they can create an institution for collective action that benefits them all. This resonates with Peter Kollock's taxonomy of strategies for dealing with social dilemmas - one strategy is to change the rules of the game.
  • Changing the rules of the game to turn zero-sum games into non-zero-sum games may be one way to describe the arc of civilization for the past 8000 years: using symbolic media and social inventions, people have created institutions for collective action since the emergence of agriculture spurred the invention of writing. But for the most part, we've overcome obstacles and built these institutions blindly, without any systematic knowledge about how the game works. Ostrom takes an empirical approach: By examining legal records and other public documents, is it possible to determine whether every population overconsumes and under-provisions all common pool resource? She found that in many different cultures all over the world, some groups would find ways to overcome the obstacles that defeated others - by creating contracts, agreements, incentives, constitutions, signals, media to enable cooperation for mutual benefit.
  • Social Dilemmas of multiple dimensions are obstacles on the path to creating institutions for collective action; these dilemmas must be overcome if institutions are to succeed or exist at all. Lack of information about the system can be an obstacle to agreement among the individuals who make up the system.Systemic information about salinization of wells was an obstacle to water-sharing agreements in California; individual water-users knew whether their wells were pumping salt, but none of them had compiled the information to see the overall pattern in the watershed, and no individual was willing to pay the price of gathering it. In this case, the US Geographic Survey had the data, thus overcoming this obstacle. Another obstacle, free-riding, creates the second order social dilemma concerning who will bear the cost of policing the rules once they are agreed upon. So although the overall formula is simple - social dilemmas can be solved through institutions for collective action that are built by overcoming known obstacles - in practice, each group that struggles to build an institution works under the handicap of being largely unaware of knowledge about how such institutions succeed and fail.
  • In comparing the communities, Ostrom found that groups that are able to organize and govern their behavior successfully are marked by the some basic design principles:
    • Group boundaries are clearly defined.
    • Rules governing the use of collective goods are well matched to local needs and conditions.
    • Most individuals affected by these rules can participate in modifying the rules.
    • The rights of community members to devise their own rules is respected by external authorities.
    • A system for monitoring member's behavior exists; the community members themselves undertake this monitoring.
    • A graduated system of sanctions is used.
    • Community members have access to low-cost conflict resolution mechanisms.
    • For CPRs that are parts of larger systems: appropriation, provision, monitoring, enforcement, conflict resolution, and governance activities are organized in multiple layers of nested enterprises.


The Commons is a general term for shared resources in which each stakeholder has an equal interest. Studies on the commons include the information commons with issues about public knowledge, the public domain, open science, and the free exchange of ideas -- all issues at the core of a direct democracy.

Common-pool Resources (CPRs) are natural or human-made resources where one person's use subtracts from another's use and where it is often necessary, but difficult and costly, to exclude other users outside the group from using the resource.. The majority of the CPR research to date has been in the areas of fisheries, forests, grazing systems, wildlife, water resources, irrigation systems, agriculture, land tenure and use, social organization, theory (social dilemmas, game theory, experimental economics, etc.), and global commons (climate change, air pollution, transboundary disputes, etc.), but CPR's can also include the broadcast spectrum. Issues

Whenever a group of people depend on a resource that everybody uses but nobody owns, and where one person's use effects another person's ability to use the resource, either the population fails to provide the resource, overconsumes and/or fails to replenish it, or they construct an institution for undertaking and managing collective action. The common pool resource (CPR) can be a fishery, a grazing ground, the Internet, the electromagnetic spectrum, a park, the air, scientific knowledge. The institution can be a body of informal norms that are disseminated by word of mouth, enforced by gossip or religious stricture, and passed from one generation to another, or a body of formal written laws that are enforced by state agencies, or a marketplace that treats the resource as private property, or a mixture of these forms. In the real world of fishing grounds and wireless competition, CPR institutions that succeed are those that survive, and those that fail sometimes cause the resource to disappear (e.g., salmon in the Pacific Northwest).

Elinor Ostrom's founding role in the evolution of an interdiscipline of cooperation studies grew from her challenge to currently accepted wisdom about institutions for collective action, her careful inductive examination of empirical studies of common pool resource management, and her insistence on interdisciplinary analysis. The dynamics she uncovered in her research - seven principles common to most successful, enduring common pool resource arrangements - are the starting point for anyone who wants to know how careful theoretical and experimental work can provide practical guidance for policy.

"The word commons originally denoted pastureland treated as a common resource, where individual herders were free to graze their sheep or cattle. The land can support a limited number of grazing animals. The temptation to graze more than one's share is a rational strategy for an individual herder. But if all succumb to the same temptation, the grass ceases to grow and the value of the pasture to everybody disappears."

In a 1986 lecture, Elinor Ostrom challenged the inexorable inevitability of Hardin's tragedy, noting that the situation described in Garrett Hardin's classic 1968 paper "The Tragedy of the Commons" has "the same underlying structure as the decision facing each prisoner in the so-called Prisoner's dilemma game." She also wrote:

"The Prisoner's Dilemma game has fascinated scholars in many fields. The paradox that individually rational strategies lead to collectively irrational outcomes seems to challenge a fundamental faith that rational human beings can achieve rational results. In the introduction to a recently published book, Paradoxes of Rationality and Cooperation, Richmond Campbell explains the "deep attraction" of the dilemma".

In her 1986 lecture, Ostrom emphasized the connection between the tragedy of the commons and the Prisoner's Dilemma game, but had the scientific curiosity to inquire whether tragically locked-in Prisoner's Dilemma strategies actually constrained human choice in all cases where humans have documented their use of common pool resources - she shrewdly understand that the cases in which people overcame the barriers to collective action are as important as the cases in which they fail:

"Scholars and government officials presume that all participants in situations with the structure of a PD game are necessarily trapped in the structure of the situation; as prisoners are trapped in their cells, participants are themselves trapped in their own mental apparatus. I shall argue that the structure is conceptually and methodologically necessary for analysis, but not an empirical necessity. The inability of participants to change the structure may be an empirical reality in some situations. It is not an empirical reality in many situations, however."

Ostrom argued from well-documented cases of informal institutions that had evolved into formal if localized arrangements, sometimes lasting for centuries, that groups could evolve effective institutions without externally coercive authority - if they could solve the "common set of problems." The design principles that Ostrom extracted from cases of successful CPR management turned out to be missing from most of the cases of failed CPR management she investigated - evidence that these design principles are clues to solutions to the problems preventing collective action in many instances. Ostrom argued forcefully that neither direct intervention by the state nor total privatization are necessary for people to evolve successful institutions - although state-provided courts lower the costs of creating the institutions, and the market value of well-managed CPRs provides strong incentive to create, agree, and maintain such arrangements."


Ostrom claims that "all efforts to organize collective action, whether by an external ruler, an entrepreneur, or a set of principals who wish to gain collective benefits, must address a common set of problems." These problems are "coping with free-riding, solving commitment problems, arranging for the supply of new institutions, and monitoring individual compliance with sets of rules."


Critique by David Harvey

David Harvey:

1. Problem of scale

"Ostrom shows that individuals can and often do devise ingenious and eminently sensible ways to manage common property resources (CPR) for individual and collective benefit. These case studies “shatter the convictions of many policy analysts that the only way to solve CPR problems is for external authorities to impose full private property rights or centralized regulation” and, as Ostrom argues, demonstrate “rich mixtures of public and private instrumentalities.”

Most of her examples, however, involve as few as a hundred or so appropriators. Anything much larger (her largest case involved fifteen thousand users) required a “nested hierarchical” structure of decision making, rather than direct negotiations between individuals. There is, clearly, an unanalyzed “scale problem” at work here. The possibilities for sensible management of common-­property resources that exist on one scale, such as shared water rights between one hundred farmers in a small river basin, do not and cannot carry over to problems such as global warming or even to the regional diffusion of acid deposition from power stations. As we “jump scales” (as geographers like to put it), the whole nature of the common-­property problem and the prospects of finding a solution change dramatically. What looks like a good way to resolve problems at one scale does not hold at another scale. Even worse, good solutions at one scale (say, the local) do not necessarily aggregate up, or cascade down, to make for good solutions at another scale (say, the global).

This, incidentally, is also why the lessons gained from the collective organization of small-­scale solidarity economies along common-­property lines cannot translate into global solutions without resort to nested hierarchical forms of decision making. Unfortunately, hierarchy is anathema to many segments of the oppositional left these days."

2. Leaving out politics

"In the grander scheme of things, and particularly at the global level, some sort of enclosure is often the best way to preserve valued commons. It will take a draconian act of enclosure in Amazonia, for example, to protect both biodiversity and the cultures of indigenous populations as part of our global natural and cultural commons. It will almost certainly require state authority to do so against the philistine democracy of short-­term moneyed interests ravaging the land with soybean plantings and cattle ranching. But in this instance there may be another problem: expelling indigenous populations from their forestlands may be deemed necessary to preserve biodiversity. One commons, in other words, may need to be protected at the expense of another.

Questions of the commons are contradictory and therefore always contested. Behind these contestations lie conflicting social interests. Indeed, “politics,” as Jacques Rancière has remarked, “is the sphere of activity of a common that can only ever be contentious.”At the end of it all, the analyst is often left with a simple decision: whose side are you on, and which and whose interests do you seek to protect?"

3. Limited choice of examples

"Not all forms of the commons are open access. Some, like the air we breathe, are open, while others, like the streets of our cities, are open in principle but regulated, policed, and even privately managed in the form of business-­improvement districts. And some, like a common water resource controlled by fifty farmers, are from the very start exclusive to a particular social group. Most of Ostrom’s examples are of the last variety. Furthermore, she limits her inquiry to so-­called natural resources such as land, forests, water, fisheries, and the like. (I say “so-­called natural” because all resources are technological, economic, and cultural appraisals and therefore socially defined.) Ostrom expresses no interest in other forms of common property, such as genetic materials, knowledge, and cultural assets, which are very much under assault these days through commodification and enclosure."
(Radical History Review Issue 109 (Winter 2011)

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