Tag: elinor ostrom

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.

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Whitehouse.gov Switches to Drupal

There was some buzz earlier this year when the White House used the free, open-source Drupal content management platform for Recovery.gov. Now the administration’s marquee Web site Whitehouse.gov will be using it.

The AP story linked just above does a good job of recounting the benefits of open source in this application: chiefly, low cost and high security.

Arnold Kling wrote recently on the Library of Economics and Liberty blog relating the work Elinor Ostrom did to win the Nobel prize in economics to how the Internet enables private provision of public goods—no regulation, little to no centralized authority at all.

Open source is nothing if not an example of that, and it’s good to see this use of open source joining many others across the big, beautiful Internet.

What Is Regulation?

The New York Times tries to spin the work of Nobel laureates Elinor Ostrom and Oliver Williamson as not anti-regulation:

Neither Ms. Ostrom nor Mr. Williamson has argued against regulation. Quite the contrary, their work found that people in business adopt for themselves numerous forms of regulation and rules of behavior — called “governance” in economic jargon — doing so independently of government or without being told to do so by corporate bosses.

But none of us “anti-regulation” folks are against “rules of behavior that people in business adopt for themselves independently of government.” The world is full of rules, from wearing clothes in the office to customary trade practices to the rules for managing common-pool resources that Ostrom studied. Anyone who opposed such “forms of regulation” wouldn’t be a libertarian or even an anarchist – he’d be a nihilist. (Of course, one could sensibly oppose particular rules; but no one seriously wants a world without rules of behavior.)

David Henderson analyzes one of the misunderstandings about the laureates’ findings:

Some have summarized their work by saying that institutions other than free markets often work well. But that statement can mislead you to conclude that government solutions are the answer. Free markets are only a subset of free institutions. A better way to sum up their work is that what Ms. Ostrom and Mr. Willamson really show is that voluntary associations work.

The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics defines “regulation” this way: “Regulation consists of requirements the government imposes on private firms and individuals to achieve government’s purposes.” That’s the kind of regulation that is controversial among economists and often criticized by libertarians. It is entirely different from “rules of behavior that people in business adopt for themselves independently of government.” Those sorts of rules – often called “governance,” as the New York Times notes – are private and voluntary, made by the voluntary interactions of a few or many people.

The work of Ostrom and Williamson supports the idea of spontaneous order, an order that emerges as result of the voluntary activities of individuals and not through the commands of government. Spontaneous order can be hard to grasp, though it is the background of our entire world – language, common law, money, and the economy are all spontaneous orders (though government has intruded into some of those orders). It’s misleading to say that work of Ostrom and Williamson is somehow supportive of “regulation,” given the way that word is commonly used.

Sheldon Richman made a similar point back in June and wrote a Facebook note on the same paragraph that caught my eye.

Nobel Prize Goes to Ostrom and Williamson

In a stunning upset, Elinor Ostrom and Oliver Williamson have won the Nobel Prize in Economics over President Barack Obama.

Lynne Kiesling of Knowledge Problem is pleased:

Both Ostrom’s work on governance institutions and common-pool resources and Williamson’s work on governance institutions and the transactional boundary of the firm contribute meaningfully to our understanding of how individuals coordinate their plans and actions in decentralized, complex systems.

Arnold Kling stresses the implications of their work for issues of decentralized knowledge and centralized power.

The official description of Ostrom’s work by the Swedish Bank identifies some implications for regulation:

The main lesson is that common property is often managed on the basis of rules and procedures that have evolved over long periods of time. As a result they are more adequate and subtle than outsiders — both politicians and social scientists — have tended to realize. Beyond showing that self-governance can be feasible and successful, Ostrom also elucidates the key features of successful governance. One instance is that active participation of users in creating and enforcing rules appears to be essential. Rules that are imposed from the outside or unilaterally dictated by powerful insiders have less legitimacy and are more likely to be violated. Likewise, monitoring and enforcement work better when conducted by insiders than by outsiders. These principles are in stark contrast to the common view that monitoring and sanctioning are the responsibility of the state and should be conducted by public employees.

Paul Dragos Aligica and Peter Boettke of George Mason University showed excellent prescience in publishing a book this summer on the work of Ostrom, her husband Vincent, and their colleagues at Indiana University, Challenging Institutional Analysis and Development: The Bloomington School.