Why Those Who Value Liberty Should Rejoice: Elinor Ostrom's Nobel Prize


Elinor Ostrom, the first woman to win the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences, is also one of the most iconoclastic thinkers to win it. (She shared it with Oliver Williamson.) Professor Ostrom’s work focuses on the mechanisms of self-governance that operate in different societies. Her intellectual curiosity led her to study local public economies—in particular the municipal provision of police services, the management of water supplies, fisheries, forestry, and development in the less-developed world. Her framework of analysis builds from a model of humanly rational choice to a historically grounded institutional analysis. She studies the rules that govern the behavior of individuals in their interactions both with nature and with one another.

Her colleagues at Indiana University describe Ostrom as “humble and hardworking,” and another Nobel Prize winner, Vernon Smith, calls her a “remarkable scholar” with a passionate drive to understand human societies in all their variety. A former president of the Public Choice Society and the American Association of Political Science, Ostrom is also one of the most beloved teachers in academia. The Workshop in Political Theory and Policy Analysis at Indiana University that she co-directed with her husband, Vincent, is perhaps the ideal model for a research and graduate education center.

But what do we learn from her studies? I would argue that we learn at least three major points of style and substance. First, much of the last century of political and economic discourse has been dominated by a debate between advocates of perfect markets and perfect central planners. The latter strove to demonstrate market failure, then would insist that government would provide the necessary corrective. Ostrom was one of the core thinkers in the social sciences to say, “Hold on. Markets may fail, but government solutions also might not work.” One must always remember that Elinor and Vincent Ostrom are foundational contributors to the theory of Public Choice. But the Ostroms went further than simply demonstrating the possibility of government failure.

Rules In Use

This leads to the second point. In the history of political and economic thought the source of social order has been attributed either to the invisible hand of market coordination (Adam Smith) or the heavy hand of state control (Hobbes). Perhaps one of the best ways to understand Elinor Ostrom’s work is to see it as working out a Hobbesian problem by way of a Smithian solution. That is perhaps a bit of a stretch but not by much. Her work on local public economies and common-pool resources focuses on actual “rules in use” (as opposed to the “rules in form”) that decentralized individuals and groups rely on to make decisions and to coordinate their behavior in order to overcome social dilemmas. It yields an optimistic message about the power of self-governance to succeed even in difficult situations. As my colleague Alex Tabarrok put it, Ostrom sees how, through various voluntary associations, groups transform the common-pool resource situation from a “tragedy of the commons” to an “opportunity of the commons.”

Traditional economic theory argues that public goods cannot be provided through the market. Traditional Public Choice theory argues that government often fails to provide solutions. Ostrom shows that decentralized groups can develop various rule systems that enable social cooperation to emerge through voluntary association.

A point that sometimes trips up readers is that Ostrom often focuses on situations where the technology of parceling property into private plots does not exist. In these situations she studies collective, but non-State decision-making over common-pool resources. While private-property solutions are not employed in such cases, the “rules in use” that do operate accomplish what private property would have accomplished. We find rules that limit access and that make individuals in the group accountable for their misuse of the resource. We also find enforcement of those rules. In short, the analyst must be willing to look at both the form and function of rules in a variety of social situations.

Local Solutions for Local Problems

Diverse institutions at work in different societies promote voluntary cooperation. As social scientists, we have to be able to understand them. There are rules that are in use, rules that are stated but not in use, rules that go by one name but that in practice do something else, and rules that tightly fit use, form, and function. Ostrom has insisted that social scientists must understand the rules that govern human behavior—both the way we interact with one another and the way we interact with nature. Some rules systems promote human betterment through the promotion of peaceful social cooperation and wealth creation; others thwart human progress by ensuring violence and poverty. It is actually that simple, and that profound.

The foundation of the social order of a free people is self-governance, not governmental authority and centralized power. Decentralized decision making that drills deep into the local social dilemmas real people face, that mobilizes incentives within a local rule structure, and that utilizes local knowledge is how the process of institutional development assures that self-governance is effective governance, enabling fallible human beings to reasonably manage scarce resources and the relationships among themselves.

The final point I want to stress concerning Ostrom’s research comes as a methodological message. Her work is humanistic and scientific. She is trying to understand human societies in all their variety. To do so she had to get up close and personal: from local government in California to irrigation systems in Nepal—and everything in between. Her field work in economics and political economy is guided by the logic of human choice. She describes her research program as “a behavioral approach to the rational choice theory of collective action.” If you take away the academic language, it translates into a research program that begins with human beings and their purposes and plans, and ends with their stumbling and groping to find voluntary solutions to difficult social dilemmas through norms, conventions, and rules.

A Message of Hope

Let me conclude by bringing this back to my title: Why should people who care about liberty rejoice in this choice for the prize? There is an ideological importance to the work of Elinor Ostrom. She has not stressed it in her work, but Vincent has ventured into the field of social philosophy. My favorite book of his is The Meaning of Democracy and the Vulnerabilities of Democracies (1997). In that work Vincent inquires into the preconditions for a self-governing citizenry. A self-governing society, he says, must be composed of citizens fully capable of embracing the “cares of thinking and the troubles of living.” Unfortunately, the machinations of democratic politics—with interest-group manipulation, logrolling, rent-seeking, and the vote motive—tend to undermine the capacity for self-governance among a people.

Nothing in this should be interpreted as deterministically pessimistic. The message is that hope is to be found not in the State but in the people. A society of free and responsible individuals who are able to form voluntary associations will solve the social dilemmas they confront through various means of self-governance.

A Diverse World of Associations

Nobody has done more than Elinor Ostrom, both in her research and in her teaching/mentor capacity at the Workshop in Political Philosophy and Policy Analysis, to help us understand the self-governing rules and institutions that work to elicit cooperation in a wide variety of societies. And nobody has done more to alert us to the damage governments can do when they attempt to impose alien rules on local peoples from afar—especially when their own systems are already addressing social dilemmas in their own way. Elinor demands that we understand and respect institutional diversity in our world, to see the ingenuity and wisdom in local solutions and in the entrepreneurial creativity and resourcefulness of individuals throughout the developed and less-developed world. Transcending the older debates in social science and public policy, Elinor Ostrom’s work emphasizes the richness of the institutional environment and the creative solutions that arise when individuals are free to form associations and work within a network of informal rules that promote individual responsibility and collective accountability.

Supporters of FEE and readers of The Freeman are attracted to the vision of a society of free and responsible individuals. Elinor Ostrom’s research gives us a window into the diverse world of associations that do not fit neatly into the categories of “market” or “State” but nevertheless are essential to peaceful and prosperous social cooperation.


December 2009



Contributing editor and FEE trustee Peter Boettke is a University Professor of Economics and Philosophy at George Mason University and director of the F.A. Hayek Program for Advanced Study in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics at the Mercatus Center.

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