Friday, October 30, 2009

The Victory of the Commons (original)
Jay Walljasper, On the Commons
Nobel Prize-winning economist Elinor Ostrom proved that people can—and do—work together to manage commonly-held resources without degrading them.

Over many decades, Ostrom has documented how various communities manage common resources — grazing lands, forests, irrigation waters, fisheries — equitably and sustainably over the long term. The Nobel Committee's recognition of her work effectively debunks popular theories about the Tragedy of the Commons, which hold that private property is the only effective method to prevent finite resources from being ruined or depleted.

Awarding the world's most prestigious economics prize to a scholar who champions cooperative behavior greatly boosts the legitimacy of the commons as a framework for solving our social and environmental problems. Ostrom's work also challenges the current economic orthodoxy that there are few, if any, alternatives to privatization and markets in generating wealth and human well being.

The Tragedy of the Commons refers to a scenario in which commonly held land is inevitably degraded because everyone in a community is allowed to graze livestock there. This parable was popularized by wildlife biologist Garrett Hardin in the late 1960s, and was embraced as a principle by the emerging environmental movement. But Ostrom's research refutes this abstract concept with the real life experience from places like Nepal, Kenya and Guatemala.

"When local users of a forest have a long-term perspective, they are more likely to monitor each other's use of the land, developing rules for behavior," she cites as an example. "It is an area that standard market theory does not touch." Garrett Hardin himself later revised his own view, noting that what he described was actually the Tragedy of the Unmanaged Commons.

Columbia University economist Joseph Stiglitz, also a Nobel winner, commented, "Conservatives used the Tragedy of the Commons to argue for property rights, and that efficiency was achieved as people were thrown off the commons...What Ostrom has demonstrated is the existence of social control mechanisms that regulate the use of the commons without having to resort to property rights." [Social control mechanisms = custom or law (even if it is not written), and the a system of punishments and rewards it provides.]

The Nobel Committee's choice of Ostrom is significant considering that many winners of the prize since it was initiated in 1968 have been zealous advocates of unrestricted markets, such as Milton Friedman, whose selection helped fuel the rise of market theory as the be-all end-all of economics since the 1980s. Policies based upon this narrow worldview sparked the rise of corporate power and the diminishment of government's role in protecting the commons.

While right-wing thinkers scoffed at the possibility of resources being shared in a way that maintains the common good, arguing that private property is the only practical strategy to prevent this tragedy, Ostrom's scholarship shows otherwise.
"What we have ignored is what citizens can do and the importance of real involvement of the people involved," she explains.

A "long-term perspective" is not simply "knowing" that there is a future, and that one's actions will have some sort of consequences. It is more like foresight, or prudence and its accompanying virtues. In that case, the claim is that virtuous people act or take care of things virtuously. It seems tautological, doesn't it? But her research and publications likely have the veneer of being "scientific," which a philosophy book lacks. (Even if this is not true of her work, how many sociological studies try to be scientific according to 19th century standards, incorporating data-gathering, number-crunching, graphing, and statistical analysis?)

Nonetheless, her book is probably worth reading. I'm particularly interested in the methods for determining the limits of sustainable use. The book should also be a good counter-argument to liberals and libertarians. Even if law cannot bring about virtue directly, it can foster behavior that is in accordance with virtue, and protect the goods. Sustainability may not be a concern for a community with a small population size that is not rooted in one place, but as the population grows, political prudence must take into account the consequences of our behavior on the environment and the local ecosystem, from which we draw our resources. It is not so easy to realize this when one lives in isolation from the disastrous effects that our industries have upon the environment. (Would Rand Paul be so supportive of mountaintop removal if he had to live in the affected parts of West Virginia?)

As for conservatives who defend private property -- would Aristotle and Aquinas be among them? Aristotle argues for private property in the Politics, and iirc, Aquinas appears to agree with him in his commentary. A possible resolution is to argue that private property is necessary in a decaying society, when cooperation and mutual reliance are no longer strong. Or the development of private property happens when the differentiation of labor arises, or a society becomes more "complex"? It will be interesting to see if private private is completely absent in the societies Ostrom studies. I suspect it is not, that only certain resources are held in common.
Why should not natural resources, which are common goods, be held in common and regulated by a community, and portions apportioned in conformity with some principle other than "private property"?

Related links:

Elinor Ostrom - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Ostrom, Elinor - Indiana University Cognitive Science
Elinor Ostrom, 2009 Nobel Laureate in Economic Sciences
'Governing the Commons' by Elinor Ostrom :: A Book Review by Scott London
Google Books
Cooperation Commons
On the Commons
The Non-Tragedy of the Commons - TierneyLab Blog -

More on the "Tragedy of the Commons"
The Tragedy of the Commons by Garrett Hardin
Tragedy of the commons - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Tragedy of the Commons: The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics
Tragedy of the Commons Described
The Tragedy of the Commons World of Psychology

Elinor Ostrom celebrates winning the Nobel Prize in economics at Indiana University in Bloomington, Indiana October 12, 2009. A U.S. academic who proved that communities can trump state control and corporations became the first woman to win the Nobel prize in economics on Monday, sharing it with an expert on conflict resolution. (Reuters/Daylife)

Elinor Ostrom celebrates winning the Nobel Prize in economics at Indiana University in Bloomington, Indiana October 12, 2009. Ostrom, a U.S. academic who proved that communities can trump state control and corporations became the first woman to win the Nobel prize in economics on Monday, sharing it with an expert on conflict resolution. (Reuters/Daylife)

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