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Political Economy of Institutions and Decisions

Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action

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Congratulations to Elinor Ostrom, Co-Winner of The Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel 2009!

The governance of natural resources used by many individuals in common is an issue of increasing concern to policy analysts. Both state control and privatization of resources have been advocated, but neither the state nor the market have been uniformly successful in solving common pool resource problems. After critiquing the foundations of policy analysis as applied to natural resources, Elinor Ostrom here provides a unique body of empirical data to explore conditions under which common pool resource problems have been satisfactorily or unsatisfactorily solved. Dr. Ostrom first describes three models most frequently used as the foundation for recommending state or market solutions. She then outlines theoretical and empirical alternatives to these models in order to illustrate the diversity of possible solutions. In the following chapters she uses institutional analysis to examine different ways--both successful and unsuccessful--of governing the commons. In contrast to the proposition of the tragedy of the commons argument, common pool problems sometimes are solved by voluntary organizations rather than by a coercive state. Among the cases considered are communal tenure in meadows and forests, irrigation communities and other water rights, and fisheries.

298 pages, Paperback

First published January 1, 1990

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About the author

Elinor Ostrom

64 books173 followers
Elinor Ostrom won the 2009 Nobel Prize in Economics.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 90 reviews
Profile Image for Michael Nielsen.
Author 7 books967 followers
February 9, 2017
This book transformed the way I look at the world.

For many societal problems a standard dichotomy is between market-based solutions and government-based solutions. As anyone reading this review knows, much of our politics and public discourse is organized around arguments between these two basic mechanisms for solving problems.

This is especially true for management of common-pool resources: things like water, forestry, the climate, fisheries, land, and so on. Some people want to create property rights in these things, and design an effective market. Other people insist that good government regulation is the key.

Early in her career, Ostrom noticed a third approach that has a lot less mindshare. In some cases, common-pool resources can be managed through self-organized governance systems. She begins the book, for example, with a discussion of how fishers from the town of Alanya, in Turkey, have organized to prevent over-fishing.

In this book, Ostrom investigates when such self-organized governance systems work, and how they can fail. Instead of adhering to ideology and theory, she takes a close, clear-eyed look at dozens of fascinating examples, and tries to figure out what underlying principles are responsible for success or failure.

The result is a nascent theory for high-quality self-governance of common pool resources.

Whenever I hear a political debate, underlying the discussion is often an assumption that we need to use markets or government to solve big problems, and that it's just a question of integrating those two ideas appropriately. Ostrom's book skewers that assumption.

Highly recommended.
Profile Image for Nick Klagge.
711 reviews53 followers
August 16, 2011
This work is, for me, a model of great social science work. As someone thinking of going to an economics PhD program in the not-so-distant future, I will definitely benefit from having this book in the back of my mind.

The topic of the book is common-pool resources (CPRs)--which economists define as resources that are "rival" (if I take some of it, that reduces the supply available to anyone else) but "non-excludable" (it is difficult to prevent people from making use of it). A classic example of this, and one among those studied by Ostrom, is a fishery--there are only so many fish, but with a big enough area, it's pretty difficult to police boundaries or restrictions.

The mainstream economics literature, and because of it much popular commentary, has focused on such resources from a set of related perspectives referred to as "the prisoner's dilemma" and "the tragedy of the commons." These models suggest that in some CPR situations, individuals acting in their rational self-interest will end up making decisions that are sub-optimal from a group point of view--generally, overusing the resource. As we can observe with most deep-sea fisheries, this is often indeed the case. But Ostrom's interest lies in those cases where the predictions of these classic models do not come true: situations where a group of people has established a durable voluntary system for regulating use of the CPR, which neither resorts to privatization nor external regulation (the two preferred remedies of the tragedy-of-the-commons crowd).

Ostrom's style is extraordinarily appealing to me. Though the book is relatively recent, she writes in what I would call a "classic" style reminiscent of Smith or Keynes. She works systematically and logically, frequently making use of fundamental concepts of economics (for instance, discount rates), but the book is free of equations or mathematical models. I am sure that Ostrom was conversant in mathematical modeling, and used it in her academic papers, but it is a testament to the significance of her ideas that she was able to express them in this way yet have the book retain a strongly academic (that is, not "popular") character.

I also really appreciated the perspectives Ostrom took on models and math--something Smith and Keynes didn't have the opportunity to do because of the state of the discipline in their time. She talks persuasively about the model as metaphor. For example, she discusses the way that the prisoner's dilemma has become such a dominant way of thinking about collective challenges, despite the fact that it is highly specialized and requires that the payoffs be just so, because of the captivating counterintuitiveness of the result. She talks quite compellingly about the way economists tend to take the perspective of "the state", and how often economic models assume that individuals will be self-centered and myopic while the technocrats in the government will be wise and far-sighted.

In addition to these matters of taste, this book is filled with interesting concepts, and particularly, applications of concepts from other disciplines to economics. I will just mention: quasi-voluntary compliance, second-order collective action problems, the effects of discount-rate heterogeneity, incomplete utility functions.
Profile Image for Eduardo Santiago.
603 reviews30 followers
August 22, 2012
The good news is, there's hope: the Tragedy of the Commons is not inevitable. Ostrom identifies factors necessary for productive and long-term use of these resources, illuminating real-world case studies and offering hope for those who sincerely want to make things work. It can happen.

This isn't a political work: Ostrom sneers at both libertarians (“The private sector will fix it!”) and statists (“the government will fix it!”) while recognizing that the real world requires good doses of both philosophies. You know, reality. Science. Not what you wish would be; what is.

Surprisingly readable. Not for everyone, but if you enjoyed de Soto's The Mystery of Capital: Why Capitalism Triumphs in the West and Fails Everywhere Else and if you find yourself needing to know how we can get ourselves out of certain tragic messes, this one might be for you.
Profile Image for Paul Ataua.
1,285 reviews119 followers
January 12, 2021
What a stimulating read! it’s so good find a book that tries to get to grips with how to find practical solutions to situations that share aspects of the tragedy of the commons. It's fascinating to read clear discussion of practical examples of ways to engender commitment and monitor without resorting to leviathan style control or market forces. Great read!

Profile Image for Otto Lehto.
436 reviews155 followers
November 4, 2017
Elinor Ostrom's quiet revolution has been an interdisciplinary hit: it has influenced economics, sociology and political science, only to name the most obvious candidates. Her 1990 book, Governing the Commons, is a breathtaking example of a scholar who has refused to bow to false idols.

The book combines powerful theoretical perspectives with relevant empirical research. The beginning and the end are more theory-heavy. The vast chunk in the middle is taken up by laboriously detailed case descriptions of various Common Pool Resource (CPR) governance models from around the world.

What is striking about the book is how it eschews simple theoretical models, such as those of rational choice theory or of neoclassical welfare economics, while simultaneously taking advantage of some of the key ideas in those fields, e.g. economics, social psychology, game theory, public choice theory, etc... And these ideas are modified, in a Popperian fashion, to suit the empirical reality in the field. Ostrom's synthesis of these theoretical ideas, while important in and of itself in the abstract, is married intimately into her application of them into the empirical field work.

The main concern of Ostrom's work is to show how rationally motivated individuals, acting under uncertainty, environmental constraints, imperfect information and heterogeneous interests, are able to solve - more often than they "should" according to mainstream economic theory - the debilitating trifecta of the tragedy of the commons, prisoner's dilemma and collective action problems. Ostrom shows how fishermen, cattle ranchers, water appropriators and other CPR agents are able to come together to achieve collective improvements.

In successfully organizing for collective action, individuals and groups are able to engage in institutional rule-making and rule-reforming, often in ways that are context-dependent, built upon the local knowledge of the participants in the cooperative enterprise of their community.

From a reader's point of view, the painstaking details of the empirical examples can be overwhelming. And for the casual reader it might make sense to skim through some of the details. But there is nothing superfluous about any of it. On the contrary, every example allows a glimpse into the crucial human variables that underline human cooperation under uncertainty. Ostrom's keen theoretical eye is able to salvage, from the seeming chaos of communal rules from all the corners of the world, some underlying universals of sustainable cooperation between appropriators.

The significance of Ostrom's work extends far beyond the narrow confines of the CPR problem. Her work can be used to extend neoclassical economics into areas beyond price signals and beyond the assumptions of perfect competition, zero transaction costs and transparent information. There is no such thing as "the markets" that can solve everything. And, at the same time, by opening up a polycentric and nested perspective on decision making, Ostrom's work can be used to challenge the assumption of a singular, centralized government acting as an exogenous rule-bestowing agent.

Ostrom's work continues the legacy of the great thinkers in political philosophy and economics. It is ultimately up to the people, acting within and without markets, to solve their own problems. In many ways, although she doesn't say so herself, her work continues the legacy of anarchism, by showing how rules emerge from agreement, and how consensus can emerge from conflict.

Too few books are challenging, exciting and groundbreaking at the same time. And too few thinkers are able to offer major breakthroughs in both empirical and theoretical research. But Ostrom's "Governing the Commons" is one of those rare gems, and it should be mandatory reading for anybody interested in social institutions, conflict resolution and political economy. In generating forums of cooperation, the expansion of institutions of self-governance can create a path forward beyond the stifling dilemma of government lethargy and market fundamentalism.

While eschewing utopias and easy solutions, her vision brings lucidity into the messy business of self-governance, which bodes well for the future of human freedom.
Profile Image for Athan Tolis.
309 reviews572 followers
November 11, 2016
Elinor Ostrom won the Nobel for her work on common-pool resources, so this book represents Economics orthodoxy on the topic.

It does not disappoint.

Presumably to get us interested, the author starts backwards, taking us through three examples of simple theories that predict common-pool resources will always perish: the “prisoner’s dilemma,” the “tragedy of the commons” and the “logic of collective action.”

From there she goes on to explain how a common-pool resource differs from a public good like national defence or public safety: First, if my cow is grazing on a meadow, it’s eating grass that won’t be there for your cow to eat. Second, by dint of competing with one another to extract fish from a lake, we could be doing so at the expense of our future ability to fish from the lake. National defence, on the other hand (a public good, rather than a common-pool resource) is there for all of us to fully take advantage of and does not perish through the tragedy of the commons. A common-pool resource is thus defined (p.30) as a “stock” of variables that can produce a maximum quantity of “flow” variable without harming the “stock” or the system, with the added complications that 1. it could be costly to monitor / police / limit the “appropriation” of the “flow” 2. it could be costly to ensure the continued “provision” of this common-pool resource itself (for example, a community might need to keep a dam in good shape)

Next, the author politely points out that the three game-theoretical constructs which predict the demise of all common-poor resources are far too abstract and proceeds to disprove them by counterexample, listing a number of thriving examples of common-pool resources that 1. have stood the test of time and 2. are isolated and simple enough for us to examine without having any second thoughts as to whether our analysis is complete: High mountain meadows and forests in Switzerland and Japan, irrigation institutions in Spain and the Philippines are described in great detail, and their common characteristics are summarized as follows:

1. Clearly defined boundaries
2. Congruence between local conditions and the rules governing “provision” and “appropriation” of the common-pool resource
3. Collective choice arrangements whereby those who use the common-pool resource have voice in establishing or modifying the rules
4. Monitoring that is, at a minimum, accountable to the appropriators
5. Graduated sanctions for rule-breakers
6. Conflict-resolution mechanisms
7. The right of appropriators to organise must not be challenged by outside authorities
8. For larger common-pool resources there is a need for multiple layers of nested enterprises to take care of “provision,” “appropriation,” “monitoring,” “enforcement,” “resolution,” “government” etc.
It’s a formidable list, but it’s not exhaustive. In the spirit of Douglass North and Mancur Olson, the author next introduces a further factor in the equation, and that’s the contribution that government institutions have to make to common-pool resources by means of providing technological expertise and a helpful legal framework that will jointly act to support, help shape and enforce the decisions of the agents who engage in the provision and appropriation of the common-pool resource. The example here comes from a very thorough examination of how institutional change was made possible in the case of a number of rather diverse groundwater basins in California in the 1950’s and 60’s.

A long list of failures comes under the microscope next: two Turkish fisheries, yet another Californian groundwater basin, a (totally fascinating) Sri Lankan fishery (p.151), followed by a couple borderline cases in Sri Lanka and Canada. They are all checked against the list, with a summary (p.180) of successes and failures that makes for some very persuasive reading.

Rather than declare some type of “breakthrough,” the book closes with an extremely humble assessment of the quandary facing participants in common-pool resources and an attempt to describe a general framework for assessing the potential for success through their eyes: the size, variability, quality and longevity of the benefits that will flow to the potential appropriators must be weighed against the costs inherent in helping out with “provision,” the transformation costs, the monitoring and enforcement costs, the information costs and the potential for positive institutional change. The author submits that in her opinion the following factors are most conducive to a positive decision to adopt a new rule / participate in a proposed solution:

1. Looming harm if the rule is not adopted/changed to save the resource
2. Appropriators will be affected in similar ways if a rule is adopted/changed
3. Low discount rates
4. Low information, transformation, monitoring and enforcement costs
5. Pre-existing social capital (e.g.in the form of norms or reciprocity and trust)
6. A relatively small and stable group appropriating from the common-pool resource

I’ll be totally honest, I read this entire book with an eye toward analysing the European common currency as a common-pool resource, but in the end I was captivated by the theory itself. Even if I never apply this knowledge to anything, I thoroughly enjoyed reading “Governing the Commons.” I was entertained and challenged in equal measure.
Profile Image for Rossdavidh.
507 reviews143 followers
September 12, 2016
In 1968, an ecologist and philosopher named Garrett Hardin wrote an essay, called "Tragedy of the Commons". It was enormously influential in a different field, economics, because it seemed to explain how individuals who all are attempting to maximize their own individual welfare can end up with a result no one wanted. He postulated a common grazing area, that anyone could graze their cows on. If each herder thought that others would overgraze the common pasture, it would make sense for them to overgraze it first, with their cattle. This would mean the pasture would have no food for them later, but since the pasture would be doomed regardless, each herder would want to graze their own cows there soon, before the pasture was overgrazed and no longer available to them. The "Tragedy of the Commons" became a catch-phrase to explain why owning things in common was doomed to failure.

Elinor Ostrom was an economist who did what was, for an economist, a remarkable and unusual thing. She went out to check the real-world data, to see if that's what really happened. Do people who hold a finite but renewable resource in common, get a tragic outcome? It turns out, sometimes they do, and sometimes they do not.

Then, Ostrom did something else unusual for an economist. Instead of retreating to her office to theorize about a mental model for why it would turn out sometimes one way and sometimes another, she started amassing as much real-world data as she could, from both failed and successful commons. Fisheries, irrigation systems, groundwater basins, as well as grazing areas, in several different continents and in areas as wealthy as Switzerland and Japan, or as poor as Sri Lanka and the Phillipines.

It turns out that there are some things which long-term, successful use of common resources have in common, which make them different from ones which for one reason or another fail to succeed. These reasons don't fall predictably along left-wing or right-wing ideals.

Ostrom distills them down to 8 rules, but I won't list them here, because each of the rules needs a good bit of explanation to make sense. Even better than Ostrom's explanations, are her case studies, both those she did herself and those which she has collected from colleagues. Some of the commons she examines have been in continuous use for centuries (in one case probably over 1,000 years) without being tragically overused and degraded. Probably even more surprising to me was the case studies from the area around Los Angeles in the 20th century, related to groundwater. Who knew that Americans could find a way to arrive at consensus? Ok, we only got to 80%, and the courts had to seal the deal to force the other 20% to not keep pumping water out from under their neighbours beyond what could be replenished, but still. Reading about Americans solving political issues through negotiation and consensus, with an eye to long-term consequences, was astonishing.

In the same chapter, though, we read a case study of another water basin not far away, where the parties involved failed to reach an effective agreement. So, it is not just a cultural issue, or Americans (more precisely, southern Californians) would either be capable of managing common resources, or not. In fact, though, while culture has a role to play, there are other factors at work as well. How big is the group trying to manage the resource? How well are they able to exclude others who are not parties to the agreement? Do they have the ability to modify the rules themselves, or are these handed down by a remote governmental agency? And so on.

The most revolutionary thing that Ostrom did, however, was to build her economic theory around a close and extensive view of the facts on the ground. This has led to what is known as Ostrom's Law:

"A resource arrangement that works in practice can work in theory."

In almost any other field, this would not be worth stating, but in economics, it is so beyond the current way of thinking that the rest of her field has not caught up yet. This book gives a clear and concise description of how and why people sometimes fail to work together to preserve a common resource, but sometimes succeed.
Profile Image for Brishen.
27 reviews
February 11, 2013
Just after the global financial crisis of 2008 the Nobel Prize in Economics was awarded to Elinor Ostrom for her work on Common Pool Resources (CPR). While I'm not sure if there was a correlation between the two events, it does seem that giving the award to someone who's body of work shows that people can successfully handle pooled resources without government regulation or privatization was at least a happy coincidence.

In this book Ostrom details a variety of different situations around the world where people have come up with solutions for dealing with CPR. Some situations have been highly successful, others not as much, but all are described in great detail along with analysis on why the situation has been or not been able to work. The overall thesis is to show that the most popular models used in dealing with common resources, mainly the tragedy of the commons, are very pessimistic and are only good for people who have no communication or are very short sighted. The last chapter in particular details explicitly problems with trying to use tractable models in economics and sets out her own parameters for future policy makers to use.

I highly recommend this book to anyone who deals in public policy and thinks that there is one solution that will work in all times and all places.
Profile Image for Sean Rosenthal.
197 reviews23 followers
November 25, 2015
Interesting Quotes:

"The tragedy of the commons, the prisoner's dilemma, and the logic of collective action are closely related concepts in the models that have defined the accepted way of viewing many problems that individuals face when attempting to achieve collective benefits. At the heart of each of these models is the free-rider problem. Whenever one person cannot be excluded from the benefits that others provide, each person is motivated not to contribute to the joint effort, but to free-ride on the efforts of others. If all participants choose to free-ride, the collective benefit will not be produced. The temptation to free-ride, however, may dominate the decision process, and thus all will end up where no one wanted to be. Alternatively, some may provide while others free-ride, leading to less than the optimal level of provision of the collective benefit. These models are thus extremely useful for explaining how perfectly rational individuals can produce. under some circumstances, outcomes that arc not 'rational' when viewed from the perspective of all those involved.

"What makes these models so interesting and so powerful is that they capture important aspects of many different problems that occur in diverse settings in all parts of the world. What makes these models so dangerous - when they are used metaphorically as the foundation for policy - is that the constraints that are assumed to be fixed for the purpose of analysis are taken on faith as being fixed in empirical settings, unless external authorities change them. The prisoners in the famous dilemma cannot change the constraints imposed on them by the district attorney; they are in Jail. Not all users of natural resources are similarly incapable of changing their constraints. As long as individuals arc viewed as prisoners, policy prescriptions will address this metaphor. I would rather address the question of how to enhance the capabilities of those involved to change the constraining rules of the game to lead to outcomes other than remorseless tragedies."

-Elinor Ostrom, Governing the Commons


"Relying on metaphors as the foundation for policy advice can lead to results substantially different from those: presumed to be likely. Nationalizing the ownership of forests in Third World countries, for example, has been advocated on the grounds that local villagers cannot manage forests so as to sustain their productivity and their value tn reducing soil erosion. In countries where small villages had owned and regulated their local communal forests for generations, nationalization meant expropriation. In such localities, villagers had earlier exercised considerable restraint over the rate and manner of harvesting forest products. In some of these countries, national agencies issued elaborate regulations concerning the use of forests, but were unable to employ sufficient numbers of foresters to enforce those regulations. The foresters who were employed were paid such low salaries that accepting bribes became a common means of supplementing their Income. The consequence was that nationalization created open-access resources where limited-access common-property resources had previously existed. The disastrous effects of nationalizing formerly communal forests have been well documented for Thailand, Niger, Nepal, and India. Similar problems occurred in regard to inshore fisheries when national agencies presumed that they had exclusive jurisdiction over all coastal waters."

-Elinor Ostrom, Governing the Commons (citations omitted)


"Table J .1. Design principles illustrated by long-enduring CPR institutions
1. Clearly defined boundaries
Individuals or households who have rights to withdraw resource units from the CPR must be clearly defined, as must the boundaries of the CPR itself.
2. Congruence between appropriation and provision rules and local conditions
Appropriation rules restricting time. place, technology, and/or quantity of resource units are related to local conditions and to provision rules requiring labor. material. and/or money.
3. Collective-choice arrangements
Most individuals affected by the operational rules can participate in modifying the operational rules.
4. Monitoring
Monitors, who actively audit CPR conditions and appropriator behavior, are accountable to the appropriators or are the appropriators.
5. Graduated sanctions
Appropriators who violate operational rules are likely to be assessed graduated sanctions (depending on the seriousness and context of the offense) by other appropriators, by officials accountable to these appropriators, or by both.
6. Conflict-resolution mechanisms
Appropriators and their officials have rapid access to low·cost local arenas to resolve conflicts among appropriators or between appropriators and officials.
7. Minimal recognition of rights to organize
The rights of appropriators to devise their own institutions arc not challenged by external governmental authorities.

For CPRs that are parts of larger systems:
8. Nested enterprises
Appropriation. provision. monitoring, enforcement. conflict resolution, and governance activities are organized in multiple layers of nested enterprises."

-Elinor Ostrom, Governing the Commons


"If the appropriators adopt contingent strategies - each agreeing to follow a set of rules, so long as most of the others follow the rules - each one needs to be sure that others comply and that their compliance produces the expected benefit. Thus, a previously unrecognized "private" benefit of monitoring in settings in which information is costly is that one obtains the information necessary to adopt a contingent strategy. If an appropriator who monitors finds someone who has violated a rule, the benefits of that discovery are shared by all who use the CPR, and the discoverer gains an indication of compliance rates. If the monitor does not find a violator, previously it has been presumed that private costs are involved without any benefit to the individual or the group. If information is not freely available about compliance rates, then an individual who monitors obtains valuable information from monitoring. The appropriator-monitor who watches how water is distributed to other appropriators not only provides a public good for all but also obtains information needed to make future strategic decisions

"By monitoring the behavior of others, the appropriator-monitor learns about the level of quasi-voluntary compliance in the CPR. If no one is discovered breaking the rules, the appropriator-monitor learns that others comply and that no one is being taken for a sucker. It is then safe for the appropriator-monitor to continue to follow a strategy of quasi-voluntary compliance. If the appropriator-monitor discovers a rule infraction, it is possible to learn about the particular circumstances surrounding the infraction, to participate in deciding the appropriate level of sanctioning, and then to decide whether or not to continue compliance. If an appropriator-monitor finds an offender who normally follows the rules but in one instance happens to face a severe problem, the experience confirms what everyone already knows: There will always be instances in which those who are basically committed to following the set of rules may succumb to strong temptations to break them.

"The appropriator-monitor may want to impose only a modest sanction in this circumstance. A small penalty may be sufficient to remind the infractor of the importance of compliance. The appropriator-monitor might be in a similar situation in the future and would want some understanding at that time. Everyone will hear about the incident, and the violator's reputation for reliability will depend on complying with the rules in the future. If the appropriator-monitor presumes that the violator will follow the rules most of the time in the future, the appropriator-monitor can safely continue a strategy of compliance. The incident will also confirm for the appropriator-monitor the importance of monitoring even when most others basically are following the rules.

"A real threat to the continuance of quasi-voluntary compliance can occur, however, if an appropriator-monitor discovers individuals who break the rules repeatedly. If this occurs, one can expect the appropriator-monitor to escalate the imposed sanctions in an effort to halt future rule breaking by such offenders and any others who might start to follow suit. In any case, the appropriator-monitor has up-to-date information about compliance and sanctioning behavior on which to base future decisions about personal compliance."

-Elinor Ostrom, Governing the Commons


"Let us take another look at the larger CPRs (within the universe of cases considered) and how those that have succeeded in solving problems of collective action have done so. All of these are characterized by design principle 8: the use of nested enterprises. The larger organizational units in these systems are built on previously organized smaller units. In the Spanish huertas, the fundamental organizational unit is the tertiary canal. The cost of organizing a group of farmers living near to one another and appropriating directly from the same canal is considerably less than the cost of organizing a large group of farmers many of whom never come into direct contact with one another. But once the smaller units are organized, the marginal cost of building on that organizational base is substantially less than the cost of starting with no prior base. Several of the Spanish huertas are three or four layers deep . . .

"Success in starting small-scale initial institutions enables a group of individuals to build on the social capital thus created to solve larger problems with larger and more complex institutional arrangements. Current theories of collective action do not stress the process of accretion of institutional capital. Thus, one problem in using them as foundations for policy analysis is that they do not focus on the incremental self-transformations that frequently are involved in the process of supplying institutions. Learning is an incremental, self-transforming process."

-Elinor Ostrom, Governing the Commons


"One can search the development literature long and hard, for example, without finding much discussion of the importance of court systems in helping individuals to organize themselves for development. The first time that I mentioned to a group of AID officials the importance of having an effective court system as an intervention strategy to achieve development, there was stunned silence in the room. One official noted that in two decades of development work she had never heard of such a recommendation being made."

-Elinor Ostrom, Governing the Commons


"Subsidizing the purchase of new technologies has been a frequent strategy of national governments in relationship to fisheries, with results that have at times been disastrous. The effort to finance the acquisition of a new technology presumes that local fishers will not adopt efficient new technologies without external aid. The conservatism of fishers in regard to the use of new technologies may reflect an awareness that the management of complex resource systems depends on a delicate balance between the technologies in use and the entry and authority rules used to control access and use. If the adaptation of new technologies is accelerated, the relationship between the rules and technologies in use may become seriously unbalanced. This is particularly the case when the rules have come about through long processes of trial and error and fishers do not possess legal powers to devise new rules and get them enforced. A focus on "production costs" alone, rather than on the total of production costs, transaction costs, and enforcement costs, leads to a narrow interpretation of efficiency (Nonh 1986a,b). The rapid introduction of a "more efficient" technology by an outside authority can trigger the very "tragedy of the commons" that the same public officials presume will occur if they do not regulate the use of these fisheries. See Cordell and McKean (1986) for a discussion of the effects of the subsidization of a new technology on the Rahian coast of Brazil by national authorities."

-Elinor Ostrom, Governing the Commons
Profile Image for Laszlo.
152 reviews40 followers
March 2, 2020
To assert that Ostrom knocked it out of the ballpark with her study on common pool resources would be an understatement. Her empirical, detailed and meticulous research gives a nuanced and rational view on the institutional frameworks that can be developed to best manage common resources in different settings, dispels sweeping 'one size fits all' theoretical notions, sinks the battleship of the ''tragedy of the commons'' and of its white supremacist theorist, Garett Hardin, to the murky grave of debunked theories and finally, challenges and offers an alternative to the state-market dichotomy.

Ostrom builds several case studies from around the world, from old, established communally managed forrests in Switzerland and Japan, to irrigation systems in Spain and the Phillipines that struggle in scarce and demanding environment to complex webs of state, private and communal system building to manage water resources in California as well as failed communal initiatives in Sri Lanka and Canada, along with the analysis of many other works on the topics related to organizational theory and common resource management.

Her analysis does not approach the management of common pool resources (CPR's) from a doctrinal or ideological perspective, in fact, her main starting point is that it is very difficult to offer a blanket solution to these kinds of issues, one that theorists had long tried to cling to, but rather the complex interplay of institutions private and state together with the creation of communal holdings, directly managed and controlled by those that participate in them, form a nuanced playing field, influenced by other factors ranging from political context, legislation, culture and historical background.

Her study does a detailed breakdown of the factors that contribute to the success of the CPR management institutions and explores the variables that contribute to this including: monitoring and conflict resolution systems, entry requirements and limitations, framework for participation in decision making and self-determination in the functioning of communal institutions. For larger CPR's a nested, multiple-layered, federationesque system was identified as the ideal functioning framework.

After breaking down the components required for a healthy functioning of CPR, a detailed look is taken at various examples both successful, failed and 'fragile' or in an uncertain context as well as the environments surrounding them both political and natural. Here, her results show that communally managed institutions are capable of self-management that does not require impetus from state or private drivers. Although, the use of state institutions like courts or localized agents to specifically assist in the creation and monitoring process of these CPR managing institutions can be valuable it comes down to the willingness of state's to trust and permit participants to both design and make decisions regarding their use of the commons. Although various factors influence the use of a CPR, such as the value of the resource extracted, the number of those wanting to participate in its extraction or use, all of these can be managed by tweaks and adjustments in the rules and functioning of the commons provided that the political climate is willing to permit this to happen by offering autonomy.

The contribution of Ostrom's work cannot be understated, her CPR's affect individuals not only economically but ecologically, from fishing to water grounds to forrests, the ability to people to self-manage common resources becomes more self-aware and caring when it is shifted within their control and the effects of this reorganization should be a reminder to today's policy planners and thinkers of the grave limitations of the current state-market options that have led us down a path of ecological catastrophe. Rather, her work calls on on a third alternative of collectively owned and managed resource pools, protected by a legal and political framework that allows to survive various inside and outside pressures that requires effort, nuance and analysis of factors, variables and environments, the trust in people's abilities to manage themselves and their resources and finally on these commons to develop and foster a culture of trust and mutual interdependence.
Profile Image for Eugene Kernes.
429 reviews20 followers
October 19, 2019
Common-pool resources (CPRs) are the focus of this book. CPRs have multiple users (or appropriators of the resources). The underlying theme is creating an alternative way of organizing the use of the CPRs. Rather than the state or market (entrepreneur/firm) deciding on the fate of the resources, this book shows that local communities can organize themselves to prevent unsustainable extraction of the CPRs. Rather than an external organizing force, an internal network shaping people’s behavior.

As Ostrom shows, many communities have historically created institutions which facilitated sustainable extraction of resources, making the resource available for future generations. The resources under observation are renewable such as geographical basins and fisheries. As these resources are limited, conflict and free-riding are ubiquitous incentives. The communities had to overcome these and many problems. Rather than evading these problems, Ostrom emphasizes how the communities designed institutions which helped resolve the problems.

Infractions to the institutions can be handled informally rather than using formal means of punishing community members. As the communities under observation are local, there is an incentive to monitoring others behavior as the infractions hurt each individual. Those who break the rules tend to be handled quickly, and as everyone in the community will shortly be aware of the rule breaker. This information motivates the rule breaker not to continue with the infractions to prevent dishonor, while providing proof that the monitoring works. Social norms are highly effective at altering behavior.

Enforcement of the rules need to be credible and change as the rules change. Although the author claims that these communities did not have external authorities in dictating the terms, it seems to be contradictory with the examples, for the communities themselves created the external monitor of rules, internalized the external monitor. Each community needs predetermined rules to set the appropriate expectations, with each community varying in determining what rules there are and how to enforce them. Some communities have different rules based on the condition of the CPR. Many rules require loads of information, and the community needs to take risks to obtain the appropriate information to handle their particular CPR.

Epistemology is present in this book for Ostrom takes much time to express the need for both theory and empirical work. Many parts of this book express the formulation of how policies are designed and their evolution. Great detail went into the examples of the communities that succeeded and failed but the examples are not the most exciting, although they are extremely important. The complex situations described makes some parts more easily understood than others. Throughout the book, game theory is used, but to understand the depth of the implications requires a good deal of prior knowledge of game theory. A lot of the implications can easily be missed with no prior game theory knowledge.
Profile Image for Barney.
58 reviews11 followers
April 10, 2018
In this book, Elinor Ostrom examines the dismal "tragedy of the commons" argument that is so widely accepted and frequently used to advocate for private ownership as a mechanism to "protect" common pool resources (and other types of resources).

For this purpose, she presents real life case studies of both successful and failed attempts to utilize common pool resources by multiple actors, and showing how they do not fit the simple theoretical models of the "rational" actor with perfect information that leads inevitably to the tragedy of the commons. She then attempts to define a theoretical framework for models to analyze CPRs more accurately, taking into account the complexities of reality and a more nuanced characterization of human behaviour.

All in all it felt to me like Elinor Ostrom was awarded the Nobel prize in Economics because she reminded economists that humans aren't simply greedy, omniscient, homogeneous monsters who will blindly maximize their own benefit at any cost to others or the environment, but rather varied beings with a spectrum of intentions, and with the capacity to think ahead, act strategically, and even sometimes cooperate to solve their common problems.

I read this book looking for analyses of different ways to organize in federations, and to govern without individual property. I didn't really get what I signed up for, but I got something equally interesting and very related: a systematic study that indicates that yes, even the social sciences agree that people can sometimes organize and accomplish remarkable things.
Profile Image for Luke.
847 reviews14 followers
December 28, 2017
Simplistic models of "the tragedy of the commons" assume privatization or centralized management are the only solutions to self-interested rational agents' over-consumption, and consequently narrow the range of available policy. The case studies presented here, covering common resources with geographic restrictions like fisheries, watersheds, and marginal forest/grazing lands, instead show that successfully managed commons (for 50 or 500 years) involve dynamic local participatory rule-making in nested institutions both local and regional, supporting locally-appropriate mechanisms for allocating and restricting access, enforcing transparent and incremental penalties to manage trust, and able to revise rules as circumstances change.
Profile Image for Henry Cooksley.
159 reviews52 followers
March 6, 2019
This is clearly a high quality piece of narrowly focused academic literature. As such, it doesn't necessarily lend itself to be read by a lay audience. My rating represents how much I would recommend it those interested in the title on its general merits. Certain sections which were more conversational and focused on the game theoretic aspects of coordination problems stuck with me the most. Other chapters which got into the fine detail of case studies of water management and fisheries management were harder to get through.

I feel like for the general implications of the work, you would be able to come across the insights in another format, without necessarily reading this book. If you're an academic researcher in this area however, I can see how reading this work would be beneficial.
Profile Image for Amandine.
68 reviews2 followers
May 24, 2021
This is an academic book, which is hard to review in the same way as more mainstream work. I was hoping it would be as accessible as Good Economics for Hard Times but it's not. Perhaps 30 years ago there was no market for research-backed, general audience economics books, perhaps she needed to establish credence in the econ community as a Serious Academic, perhaps it’s just her default.

Leaving aside jargon and obfuscatingly formal language, the ideas behind this book are extremely interesting. It’s likely no accident that Ostrom and Duflo are the only female Economics Nobel Prize recipients to-date, and that their priorities and values speak to me. It’s an immensely practical book, a study in what works and what doesn't and why.

The first section is a primer on the typically presented “tragedy of the commons” and its theoretical underpinnings from Game Theory. If you have a decent backing in this area from somewhere else you can probably skip it. There are some formalizing equations and charts, which the other members of my book club found helpful, but Ostrom's point in bringing it up is to show how it’s too divorced from realistic nuance to be useful.

The most interesting meaty middle describes a handful of “common pool resources” successfully self-governed by the population that uses them. She outlines the 7ish elements of such a system that make it successful - though honestly I didn’t find the taxonomization that interesting. Then she describes failed or failing self-governing systems, and what they were missing. One of my favorite tidbits from this was that successful systems scale the penalty of a violation by its seriousness and circumstances. If the penalty is too harsh and totalizing, people won’t participate. For example, the difference between being fined a modest amount for collecting firewood too early when their family would otherwise freeze, versus coming down hard on a repeat violator - and in a well calibrated system repeat and pernicious offenders are rare.

The most heartening message for someone who dreads climate change is that given a reality of nested resources, it is possible to solve over-usage problems at each layer of sharing. A nested resource is something where you have tighter interdependence with a smaller, closer group of people, and increasingly looser interdependence with increasingly bigger groups. As the smaller group establishes trust and a system of governance, they can then work the way up to the next unit of sharing. A practical example from the book: irrigation systems in Sri Lanka, which are necessarily fractal. Grassroots organizing could encourage the 5ish farmers at a given endpoint channel to band together to clear blockages in their shared ditches, and then build enough trust to use water fairly and send one as a delegate up to the feeder channel that was shared amongst a larger group, etc etc.

How does climate change fit this? It can feel like such an intractable, monolithic problem: one city in America setting carbon emissions goals can’t possibly make a difference, let alone one household. But there are usually negative local impacts of local over-usage - as my friend who runs the book club said, people in China also think coal pollution and exhaust emissions are a problem. It immediately impacts quality of life. There are doubtlessly some cases where carbon emissions do not directly bite local people, but at the very least climate accords maybe could be structured in a fractal way.

My other favorite common pool resource was the water basins of southern California, which act as natural reservoirs, but if they run too low, are vulnerable to saltwater back-flow that compromises freshwater quality. Each basin is connected through groundwater flows to the others. While a group of municipalities and businesses share a basin, one poorly managed basin can reverse water flow and jeopardize its neighbors. My physicist brain, to the understanding of very few people, sees these relationships as a complex network of loosely coupled oscillators, like kids on swings hanging from the same metal bar. The real reason why I loved this specific one was that in litigation-loving America, the cost of failing to maintain the resource can be precisely quantified - if they overdraw the natural water supply, external water must be expensively shipped in - but so can the cost, in lawyer's fees of negotiating a new setup. There was one case where they calculated the cost of single holdout, amortized over the expected lifetime of the agreement (it was significant compared to neighbors who came to agreement more quickly). In every other case study, from shared pastures to fisheries, there were also a social and practical cost of introducing change to governance, and Ostrom explains why this holds in place imperfect but good-enough systems.

One of the pieces glaringly missing is how to determine who should be excluded or included in the common pool resource in the context of a globalized world with immigration. There is even an anecdote about how overfishing in otherwise equivalent fisheries in Turkey became worse when with newer technology, fresh fish distribution points sprung up closer to some villages. Larger context matters. How do you balance trust, predictability, and equity if a new entrant to the market doesn't have an equivalent resource in their home or was forced out by violence? What if it's an opportunistic privileged entrant with plenty of their own resources? What if the population just increases, and one farmer has 5 kids while the other has 1? People are bad at coping with change, and so much of the current (and probably eternal) public debate and economic and political struggle has to do with trying to figure out if and how to share. On the flip side, much of innovation is figuring out how to do more with less, and perhaps make the common pool resource less zero sum to start with.
55 reviews28 followers
January 23, 2019
Very dense, I haven't had this hard of a time reading a book in a while.

In common resources, such as underwater basins and forests and pastures and fisheries, there's a strong incentive to take more than the resource can support. If you take too much water out of a basin water levels will drop and it will eventually become incapable of holding as much water as it previously did. Once the population of a fishery collapses it's not coming back for a while.

Ideally you'd all agree to limit the amount of water you draw. However, there's a free-rider problem, everybody will always continue to have the incentive to overdraw and benefit from the resource that everybody else is preserving. Even coming to that agreement is difficult, you have to decide upon the rules you'll follow and get buy in from everybody. That's work that you'd much rather have someone else do for you... there's a second-order incentive to free-ride!

She looks down upon the traditional solutions to this problem. Letting "the government" manage and distribute the resource ignores the substantial costs in gathering information to determine the correct rules and in monitoring to enforce those rules. The external monitors are then subject to principal-agent problems (such as bribery). And governments have a strong desire to defray those costs by imposing uniform rules across their jurisdiction, an impulse which ignores the often substantial differences between different fisheries.

Another "traditional solution" is that of property rights, just carve the pasture into chunks and give each chunk to a farmer. This ignores that larger shared pastures are more useful and give more consistent results. It's not even possible to carve a fishery or a water basin into chunks. You could give the entire water basin to someone, but even if they rent the water out to others they'll centralize the profits of management. And the implicit assumption that private property owners have low discount rates (and will therefore preserve the resource) is often wrong.

She shows examples of common resources which are managed without private property or government intervention. The individuals involved have crafted rules which are specific to their local situations. They monitor each other with minimal costs, and have cheap and quick methods of punishing each other and resolving conflicts. They all share both the low costs and the large benefits management. There are some communal forests and pastures in Japan and Switzerland which have been managed without over-foresting or over-grazing for millennia.

She gives many more examples, including examples of failures to coordinate, and goes into quite some detail talking about the factors which make communal management possible or tricky. Very worth it, I haven't needed to stop and think this much while reading a book in a while.
Profile Image for Imaduddin Ahmed.
Author 1 book29 followers
January 25, 2023
You don't need to be an economist let alone the calibre of a Nobel laureate, which is what Ostrom became in 2009, to understand the theory or case studies in this book. There will be four or five game theoretic diagrams and one further table, but all that you need to understand has been written in plain English - no Econ jargon and almost no maths. The author herself read political science.

In the introductory chapter, Ostrom summarises the weaknesses of the government as regulator (lack of complete information, high costs of acquiring such information or inefficiencies if that information isn't acquired) and privatisation (doesn't ensure environmental sustainability even if the resources are divided) models before suggesting that there is another way - for users of commons to govern themselves - make their own rules, monitor, sanction etc.

The genius of her work is how simply she condenses the enablers and barriers that help predict successful governance of commons after reviewing a multitude of case studies across the world governing fisheries in Turkey and Sri Lanka, irrigation across Spain and the Philippines, groundwater basins in California, mountain grazing across Switzerland and Japan.

For all how "progressive" this sounds, don't rush to hand this book to your toddler just yet. It ought to come with a Parental Guidance warning. One of the enablers she identifies for successful governance is old relationships and reputations, and conditioning newcomers with acceptance of the established community's rules and putting them on probation with revocation of rights, or precluding them from the commons altogether. She also identifies 'extreme diversity of ethnic and cultural backgrounds' (p.166) as a barrier. Perhaps explains why the London Borough of Haringey council puts its anti-littering signs in about 10 languages for the benefit of all those bloody foreigners. Keep this book away from the British National Party. But do hand it to the governments of East Africa (Ethiopia, Tanzania, Rwanda) and China which seem to relish in breaking up farming communities and dropping them into new villages. They may gain access to infrastructure for reduced last mile costs, but they lose their kinship and reputations which also matter. (See also Seeing Like a State.)
410 reviews8 followers
December 12, 2015

Communities can and do design institutions to govern the commons despite collective action challenges. Success stories are due to successful institutional design specifically tailored to the communities/resources that the institutions serve.

Three takeaways:

1 - Economic models of collective action problems do a poor job of explaining a broad range of institutions for governance of common pool resources

2 - Developing successful governance is really hard, takes a long time, and is often best accomplished outside the purview of the state.

3 - Eight principles for successul institutional design: (1) clearly defined boundaries (2) adapted to local conditions (3) inclusive decisionmaking (4) effective/accountable monitors (5) conflict management institutions (6) graduated sanctions for enforcement (7) nested in larger systems (8) Recognition / acceptance of resource ownership by external authorities (the state).

Profile Image for Richard Marney.
491 reviews15 followers
January 4, 2020
A classic in the field, from which the author’s well deserved Nobel came in great measure. Should be on the reading list for economists and policy makers in the field.

The echoes of this seminal treatment of common pool resources and society’s approaches (both successful and not) to manage scarce resources equitably and sustainably are found throughout current theory, law and policy. The message that individual citizens and groups can and should organize themselves rather than wait for the state to step in (if ever) is perhaps the most important takeaway.

The trick in reading the book is deciding how deep to go. To understand adequately the design principles for long enduring CPR institutions, for example, requires further case study work beyond what the book offers and therefore tempts the reader to stray into supplementary study. I resisted this for the moment as my interest in the subject area is more high level. Notwithstanding, the learnings are valuable.
Profile Image for Diego.
469 reviews3 followers
July 3, 2014
El manejo de recursos de uso común que tienen una definición poco clara en sus derechos de propiedad es la temática central del libro de Ostrom.

En este trabajo analiza distintos modelos de acción colectiva y pone en duda las conclusiones tradicionales sobre el manejo de dichos recursos, sea la privatización o el control por parte del Estado. Para Ostrom existen otros mecanismos en las comunidades que permiten que estas se auto gestionen sin necesitar de la supervisión y regulación absoluta del estado y sin renunciar a la propiedad comunal privatizandola.

Un libro muy recomendable para entender algunas formas de evitar la "tragedia de los comunes" y para reflexionar sobre la aportación de la economía pública, la teoría de juegos, el nuevo institucionalismo económico y la teoría de la elección pública en el manejo de recursos.
Profile Image for Jurij Fedorov.
362 reviews63 followers
April 14, 2020
Read this book before you die.

Ostrom is one of the greatest social scientists of the 20th century, her Nobel price supports this statement. This book is very educational, scientific and on the point. There are pages and pages of just different numbers about a certain society. She is obsessed with numbers. You can find stats for every single thing these societies produce and how they produce them. Amazing. These pages of nothing but numbers (well, numbers and points about them) could be imagined to be the most boring things ever by someone like me - but somehow I liked it. It was like meditating. And the fact that she actually took the time to do real science and not just write about a society makes this book a must read. Anthropology at its finest.

Skip the numbers if you don't like stats - that way the book will become much shorter. Read it anyway.
Profile Image for Leonardo.
1,984 reviews58 followers
Want to read
October 16, 2015
Governing the Commons del año 1990, recogió decenas de experiencias en todo el mundo que habían sido capaces a lo largo de años, decenios e incluso siglos, de mantener sus tierras, sus recursos naturales, sus formas de producción y sustento, de manera comunitaria, sin por ello tener que inclinarse hacia las formas ahora convencionales y aparentemente únicas de la propiedad y gestión privada o de la propiedad y la gestión estatal. Y fue asimismo capaz de sistematizar ciertos principios generales que permitían imaginar que esas experiencias no eran únicas e irrepetibles.

Otra Sociedad, ¿Otra Política? Pág.71
1 review1 follower
June 26, 2015
The writing style of the author is amazing, simple and clear. You don't need to have a background about the subject to read the book. The author discussed new and historical cases about the commons in a great details.
Profile Image for Rhythima.
143 reviews16 followers
December 31, 2017
A great book for understanding and design of institutions and community management approach. This was the best book I could come across in bottom-up policy making
Profile Image for Quinn Dougherty.
54 reviews7 followers
May 18, 2019
Excellent book! Very empirical-- I thought it had very little theorycrafting between piles and piles of anecdotes. But perhaps that's a normal balance for a book in public econ, and I only thought it had a low amount of theorycrafting because I'm the sort of person who would've been gung ho to just read a math textbook about cooperation (which, I'll also get around to at some point).

But the theorycrafting in here is great, and so are the anecdotes! She questions what we think we know about firms and states, and provides piles of stories from every corner of the globe each of which just eviscerates the idea that you can understand the economy by dividing it as "some behaviors are firm-like and others are state-like."

TLDR, rents and taxes are often justified by saying some administrative or managerial labor needs to be compensated (and then you turn your back for 5 seconds and all sorts of wealth is getting piped out of communities). And society is so over the top dysfunctional that as soon as someone says "has anyone checked if we even need all that administrative and managerial labor?" they give her a nobel prize! I'm being flippant, because she really went on a deep dive to understand cooperation and that's no small thing, all I'm saying is this is one of those things that you really wish was commonsensical rather than intellectual.

Ostrom's interest in coordination is where it's distinct from behaviors of firms/states in that no one without skin-in-the-game* is directly involved in decision-making. So in the example of a fishery, "an institution for collective action" would be the fisherpeople themselves coming up with games--Alice can appropriate x fish on Tuesday and Bob can appropriate y fish on Wednesday (where x and y are functions of the rates of fish replenishment)--and implementing an accountability and enforcement strategy themselves. She writes about the successes and failures of this vision, and painstakingly infers two sets of conditions: one for when we can expect such institutions to succeed, and the other for when we can expect them to fail. (These are conditions I'd love to formalize if I was a few levels above where I am now in technical talent (AI, mathematical game theory, etc), and I hope someone better than me (perhaps future-me) goes and implements them as axioms in some experimental sandbox.)

I have to highlight one story in particular that was quite sobering to read, from the chapter on failures. Our tale begins in Sri Lanka in the first half of the 20th century, an irrigation system was to be used and managed. It was similar enough to irrigation systems that the people had managed before, and there was even a precedent for stateless/firmless institutions in the region. The catch was that they were dealing with the aftermath of a british quasi-villagization scheme, so people were in relatively unfamiliar specific territories (specific at the level of "the gradient of mud in that patch over there" and "the curve that this stream makes after it goes behind that hill").

It turned out that 1. familiarity with eachother, and 2. local knowledge were to become make-or-break conditions in Ostrom's formalism, which would be informed partially by this story. The brutal, but darkly comical, mismanagement by british authorities formed a feedback loop-- they shuffled the living arrangements of people into unfamiliar territories, and then installed their tax/rent system saying "we simply must coordinate for them, because they can't coordinate amongst themselves!" Ostrom is careful to make predictions or to trust her own formalism too much, but you're left with the expectation that if they had familiarity with eachother and local knowledge they could have been very prosperous without the british.

My takeaway here is very high level, much like my takeaway from other sections, but there is a great deal of detail and each story has complexity. We should avoid simple takeaways, and not expect it to be "solved" mathematically by Ostrom's or someone else's axioms. And twice on sunday we should resist "local community == good" takeaway** (to be clear, that is not in the book).

*Side note, I had to stop using the word "skin-in-the-game" when I tell people about this book, because they always want to bring up that annoying guy--- the irony is that people who interpret SITG as cash source struggle to understand rent at a structural rather than case-by-case level! I don't know if annoying guy himself makes this mistake I never read him, but that interpretation is sort of a meme you encounter a lot.

**You should notice a glaring blindspot in my telling-- suppose you have a stateless/firmless civilization, do you expect to know when an institution is coordinating business with new or temporary appropriators in a stable way vs. when an institution is on the slippery slope to rent-seeking? If it's not obvious, you should build up an intuition for this sort of thing by reading essays published on Center for a Stateless Society, but all I can say is I definitely don't expect to know, because it can be quite subtle.
Profile Image for Chuck Kollars.
128 reviews6 followers
October 7, 2022
This book's subject is "The Tragedy of the Commons", which is a very widely known and memorable essay written by Garrett Hardin. That essay's subject is shared resources, such as many old New England towns' common grazing area, and why they are inevitably destroyed. Furthering that example, each person has every incentive to graze "one more cow", until there are so many cows that the grass dies. The only long term solutions are either 1] privatization: have every grazer "own" a bit of the common, or 2] government: have a powerful outside organization set and enforce the rules.

Hardin described this situation so well this idea became almost a commonplace among ecologists, anthropologists, sociologists, and economists and political economists. Nowadays we might call it a "meme".

The book starts by pointing out this idea (and two other similar ways to model what happens to shared resources: the prisoner's dilemma logic game, and Mancur Olson's Logic of Collective Action). Then it points out the obvious, which is a giant BUT: BUT there are thousands of examples of management of shared resources (fisheries, groundwater reservoirs, irrigation systems, marginal land used as summer pasture and as a source of firewood, etc.) that do work, and that have worked continuously for hundreds of years. And both privatization and government management of a shared resource have often failed spectacularly. Obviously something is wrong with the logical idea -or model- presented by Hardin. What? That's what this book is about.

In brief, the answer proposed by this book is that the model is not wrong, but that it doesn't come anywhere close to fitting reality because it makes too many simplifying assumptions and ignores too many factors. It assumes knowledge of what others are thinking and doing is nil. It assumes instantaneous full knowledge of the current state of the shared resource by everyone. It does not incorporate a "discount rate" (how much the shared resource users value what happens far in the future, for example when their children start to use the same shared resource). It assumes transaction/ change/ enforcement/ organizational costs are all zero. And it of course completely ignores any psychological factors.

The book contains both a first pass at and a proposal for further research into figuring out exactly which solutions really are most likely to work. The book's answers are framed to fit the then-nascent field of "institutions". While this was done for other reasons, a convenient side effect is the book can essentially say that Garrett Hardin's essay is rubbish, but without directly criticizing him or his intellectual descendants.

This book's style is clear and jargon-free; although obviously written by an academic for academics, lay readers can ignore the copious notes and bibliography and read the main text with ease. It's a landmark statement made over thirty years ago; the edition I read is in fact a reprint by a publisher specializing in "classics". After this book's thorough debunking of the idea, you shouldn't hear knowledgeable colleagues making reverent remarks about "the tragedy of the commons". For a related but different way to debunk Hardin that's more specifically about politics and ecology, see https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/...
Profile Image for Звір Гуляє.
5 reviews1 follower
February 27, 2023
Без перебільшення це фундаментальна праця про принципи керування спільними обмеженими ресурсами. Будь які ресурси (вода, рибні угіддя, пасовища, бюджет... ) завжди обмежені, і поділити їх між усіма, хто на них може претендувати, дуже не просто, але... Але можливо, і успішних прикладів цього багато.

В основі підходу лежить теорія і��ор, проте, це зовсім не чергова теоретична праця з теорії ігор. Головна цінність книжки, як на мене це - принципи керування спільним виведені авторкою з аналізу численних фактичних ситуацій і прикладів.

Оскільки знайти цю книжку дуже непросто, дозволю собі викласти перелік головних принципів виведений авторкою (ст. 124):
1. Чітко визначені кордони
2. Відповідність між правилами присвоєнні і постачання та місцевими умовами
3. Механізми колективного вибору
4. Моніторинг
5. Градуйовані санкції
6. Механізми розв'язання конфліктів
7. Мінімальне визнання права на організацію
8. "Вкладені" інституції

Ця книжка передусім для громадських активістів, хто бачить себе в політиці, громадській роботі, хто може зіткнутися із необхідністю розподіляти місцеві блага - від користування водою до субсидій місцевим бюджетам на культуру та мистецтва.

Більша частина книжки - це досить важка аналітика і математичні доведення, для тих хто не прагне переформатовувати свій мозок - цілком досить третього розділу (це по-суті висновки)

Так, переклала цю книжку з англійської сумно відома зрадниця Тетяна Монтян, можливо це саме те єдине вартісне, що вона встигла зробити для України.
Profile Image for James Mason.
443 reviews12 followers
January 9, 2023
Ooof. This was dry. It clearly had a target audience, and I wasn't in it. When the preface cited two grants (a USGS and an NSF), I knew this wasn't intended for the general public. I am a scientist -- but I do astrophysics stuff, not economics. I'm a decision maker -- but for NASA missions, not common pool resources. Regardless, I recognized the scientific rigor here and I was actually relieved that this level of nuance in models and empirical studies actually exists in this field. I'm as familiar as most people with the tragedy of the commons, and I was glad that this book was essentially refutation of that entire scenario; while the tragedy is useful as far as it goes, it seems very few people (me included) know that there is a whole lot more complexity layered on top of it that can cast the whole thing in an optimistic light. It just requires diving into the deep end of this stuff. This book seems to me to be a really good reference for anyone in a position to create or modify the governing of common resource pools.

I can't remember where I came across this book. I vaguely remember it being mentioned in a podcast, but I can't remember which one let alone what the conversation was in which it was brought up. If I'd gotten to this book sooner I might have been able to relate it back to that conversation to better inform whatever it was that piqued my interest so much that I added this book to my "want to read" shelf.
Profile Image for Diah Ayu.
273 reviews8 followers
January 13, 2021
baca buku ini semacam baca paper tapi 200 halaman. awalnya, baca buku ini diniatkan dalam rangka bikin thesis yg waktu itu belum jelas mau diarahkan kemana. pada akhirnya thesisku gak ada hubungannya sama sekali dg framework dan pemikirannya Ostrom, tapi toh tetep kulanjutin baca karena apa yg ditulis di buku ini adalah hasil fieldwork sejak tahun 70-an di berbagai belahan bumi dan aku terpukau dengan detail dan konsistensinya menyusun semua data itu sampe bisa bikin framework. iya, bahkan setelah semua riset itu Ostrom terang2an bilang dia gak bisa membangun teori, hanya framework, karena terlalu banyaknya variabel yg terlibat yg gak mungkin digeneralisasi menjadi teori.

buku ini berat dan membosankan, formatnya lebih mirip textbook daripada buku ekonomi populer. tapi dari buku ini aku jadi paham soal game theory dan kompleksitasnya, yg selama ini aku ngertinya sebatas definisi dan simulasi sederhana aja. sebelumnya aku cuma tau Elinor Ostrom adalah peraih Nobel tahun 2009, tapi gak tau fokus risetnya apa. nah buku ini merangkum ~30 tahun riset Ostrom mengantarkannya meraih Nobel itu tadi, yg sekaligus menggambarkan betapa social science itu sungguh delicate krn bahkan setelah riset sebanyak itupun pada akhirnya ada hal-hal yg hanya bisa disimpulkan dengan 'it is what it is'
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