Elinor Ostrom, RIP

Elinor Ostrom, the first woman to receive the Nobel Prize in economics—though that is hardly the most significant aspect of her work—has died at 78. My old friend Mario Rizzo of New York University examined her scholarly accomplishment in 2009 when she won the Prize:

The work of Elinor Ostrom, the first woman to receive the Nobel Prize in economics, is not very well-known among economists. In fact, I would venture the guess than most economists had not heard of her before the prize was announced yesterday morning.

Two reasons for this are that her degree is in political science and she has written for publications outside of the mainstream economics journals. Additionally, her work, by and large, lacks the high degree of mathematical formalism now so characteristic of economics.

Yet the Nobel Prize Committee has done a great service to economics and the greater social-scientific community. When a well-known economist receives the prize little is gained apart from the recognition of a job well done and perhaps some wider public recognition. I do not think that great contributions are made in any discipline because of the incentive effects of an improbable prize. However, in this case the Nobel Committee has brought extraordinary work to the attention of an economics discipline that has become excessively specialized and, perhaps increasingly irrelevant to the real world, as Paul Krugman and others have recently suggested.

Professor Ostrom’s work is highly relevant to important issues in economic development, common-pool resources, the development of social norms, and the solution of various collective action problems. Her work is also methodologically diverse. She uses experimental methods, field research, and evolutionary game theory. She is not afraid to draw on various disciplines when appropriate: economics, political science, evolutionary psychology, cultural anthropology and so forth.

She is a very worthy intellectual descendant of Adam Smith who realized that the study of trade based on self-interest needed to be supplemented by a broader view of humankind – individuals capable of the so-called “moral sentiments” like honesty, benevolence, and loyalty, as well as the standard vices.

Much of Ostrom’s work centers on developing and applying a broader conception of rationality than economists usually employ. The standard conception of rationality is not the rationality of real human beings but the rationality of cognitively-unlimited lightning-fast calculators. This is a purely imaginary construct. On the other hand, Olstrom’s “thick rationality” is the result of trial and error, use of relatively simple heuristics, employment of rules, and the embodiment of cultural norms. To reject standard, improbable rationality is notto reject rationality. It is rather to develop more sophisticated, and yet more realistic, models of rationality.

“Thick rationality” is a bottom-up phenomenon. It recognizes the importance of local knowledge and diverse approaches in the management of resources. For example, many top-down irrigation projects in developing countries have failed because they have concentrated on the physical aspects of water delivery. Ostrom believes that the institutional aspects are more important. Irrigation systems built by farmers themselves are often more efficient. They deliver more water, are better repaired, and result in higher farm productivity than those built by international agencies. Often these agencies take no notice of local customs, knowledge and incentive structures; the knowledge of the bureaucrat is inferior to the knowledge of the individuals on the ground.

The central problem on which her employment of the notion of “thick rationality” can shed light is what she calls “social dilemmas.” These are circumstances in which interacting individuals can easily succumb to maximizing their short-term interests to the detriment of their long term interests. To return to our irrigation example, suppose farmers share the use of a creek for irrigation. They face a collective problem of organizing to clear out the fallen trees and brush from the previous winter. Each farmer would like to have the others do it. There are incentives to free-ride on the “public spiritedness” of others – however, everyone may think this way and nothing will get done. Ostrom finds that cooperation will often take place while the “thin” theory of rationality predicts that it will not. She finds that factors such as face-to-face contact (likely when there are small numbers), the equality of each farmer’s stake in the benefits of irrigation, and the ease of monitoring the farmer’s contribution to brush removal all make the likelihood of cooperation greater.

Elinor Ostrom has and continues to expand the power of a broader conception of rationality – one that Adam Smith would have recognized and been comfortable with – to explain the multifarious forms of human cooperation that conventional economists have been unable to explain. This is a major contribution.

Paul Dragos Aligica and Peter Boettke of George Mason University showed excellent prescience in publishing a book in the summer of 2009, just a few months before the Nobel Prize was awarded, on the work of Ostrom, her husband Vincent, and their colleagues at Indiana University, Challenging Institutional Analysis and Development: The Bloomington School.