Sunday, November 08, 2009

More on Ostrom

A few years ago I wrote a review of Polycentric Games and Institutions, a wide-ranging collection of papers written by affiliates of the Workshop in Political Theory and Policy Analysis at Indiana University. What unites the various chapters in the book is a shared commitment to the analytical vision of Elinor Ostrom, a co-recipient of this year's Nobel Prize in Economics. I thought I would post a couple of extracts from the review as an addendum to my earlier post in appreciation of Ostrom's work (the complete review is here):
Although several distinguished scholars have been affiliated with the workshop over the years, Ostrom remains its leading light and creative force. It is fitting, therefore, that the book concludes with her 1988 Presidential Address to the American Political Science Association. In this chapter, she identifies serious shortcomings in prevailing theories of collective action. Approaches based on the hypothesis of unbounded rationality and material self-interest often predict a “tragedy of the commons” and prescribe either privatization of common property or its appropriation by the state. Policies based on such theories, in her view, “have been subject to major failure and have exacerbated the very problems they were intended to ameliorate”. What is required, instead, is an approach to collective action that places reciprocity, reputation and trust at its core. Any such theory must take into account our evolved capacity to learn norms of reciprocity, and must incorporate a theory of boundedly rational and moral behavior. It is only in such terms that the effects of communication on behavior can be understood. Communication is effective in fostering cooperation, in Ostrom’s view, because it allows subjects to build trust, form group identities, reinforce reciprocity norms, and establish mutual commitment. The daunting task of building rigorous models of economic and political choice in which reciprocity and trust play a meaningful role is only just beginning.
The review ends with the following paragraph:
The key conclusions drawn by the contributors are nuanced and carefully qualified, but certain policy implications do emerge from the analysis. The most important of these is that local communities can often find autonomous and effective solutions to collective-action problems when markets and states fail to do so. Such institutions of self-governance are fragile: large-scale interventions, even when well-intentioned, can disrupt and damage local governance structures, often resulting in unanticipated welfare losses. When a history of successful community resource management is in evidence, significant interventions should be made with caution. Once destroyed, evolved institutions are every bit as difficult to reconstruct as natural ecosystems, and a strong case can be made for conserving those that achieve acceptable levels of efficiency and equity. By ignoring the possibility of self-governance, one puts too much faith in the benevolence of a national government that is too large for local problems and too small for global ones. Moreover, as Ostrom points out in the concluding chapter, by teaching successive generations that the solution to collective-action problems lie either in the market or in the state, “we may be creating the very conditions that undermine our democratic way of life”. The stakes could not be higher.
Vernon Smith and Paul Romer have also written very nice tributes to Ostrom, which may be found here and here respectively.

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