I was unusually happy one morning in 2009 when I bounced into my economic history class. It was a historic day, and a very good one for economists who work in the public choice and institutional traditions and who value inter- and multidisciplinary scholarship.
Ostrom, who would have turned 86 years old this month had she not succumbed to cancer in 2012, was an inspired selection. She was very much outside the club for three reasons. First, she was a she winning a prize that had up to this point only gone to hes, and so far she remains the only she to win the economics Nobel. Second, she spent most of her career at a very fine institution—Indiana University-Bloomington—that is nonetheless not one of the elite universities like Chicago, Berkeley, Harvard, or MIT from which Nobel laureates are usually drawn. Third, she wasn’t even an economist. Ostrom’s Ph.D. was in political science.
It may not be a surprise, then, that some economists reacted with a puzzled “who?” I think this reaction says a lot more about those economists than it says about her.
Effective, context-specific governance of common-pool resources is not planned and imposed from above by wise rule-makers.
Ostrom worked very much in what the economist Peter J. Boettke calls the “mainline” tradition running from Adam Smith in the 18th century through Friedrich Hayek and James M. Buchanan in the 20th. With her husband Vincent Ostrom—an eminent scholar in his own right—she is one of the intellectual founders of the “Bloomington School” of political economy, so named for their longtime intellectual home at Indiana University-Bloomington. Her Nobel Prize was awarded “for her analysis of economic governance, especially the commons.”
She was a scholar who looked out the window, to adapt a phrase from her fellow Nobel laureate Ronald Coase, and she showed empirically and experimentally how institutions evolve to manage common-pool resources “without any regulation by central authorities or privatization.” In other words, effective, context-specific governance of common-pool resources is not planned and imposed from above by wise rule-makers. Her Nobel Prize lecture “Beyond Markets and States: Polycentric Governance of Complex Economic Systems” should, in my opinion, be part of the training of every social scientist—not just every economist.
I’ll close with a couple of personal notes. She was the very picture of a welcoming and encouraging scholar who was at the same time super-serious about the ideas in play. At the 2008 Public Choice Society meeting, I was part of a panel discussion of Bryan Caplan’s The Myth of the Rational Voter. I distinctly remember thinking during my remarks “I think I heard Elinor Ostrom laugh at one of my jokes, so I guess this wasn’t too bad.” A few months after she won the prize, I had the honor of presenting a paper on the Memphis Riot of 1866 at her Workshop in Bloomington. It eventually appeared in Public Choice (you can find a free version here). Her willingness to really listen to what I had to say encouraged me toward the beginning of my career and set an example of what it means to really be a scholar worthy of the title.
Elinor Ostrom is no longer with us, but her research tradition lives on in the Ostrom Workshop at Indiana and in scholarship drawing from the Bloomington tradition like the new book Public Governance and the Classical-Liberal Perspective by Paul Dragos Aligica, Peter J. Boettke, and Vlad Tarko. If you have a minute, listen to this episode of Economics Detective Radio with Tarko on Ostrom’s ideas and career and watch this video on Ostrom from Marginal Revolution University. Watch and read her Nobel lecture. I think you will find it a good use of your time.