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Mar 21, 2019

10 Tips to Facilitate Collective Action from Elinor and Vincent Ostrom

For the Ostroms, the key insight was that we need to find ways to encourage collective action so as to avoid the need for coercion.

Editor’s Note

I am especially happy to publish this piece on Vincent and Elinor Ostrom by Jayme Lemke. Over the last 20 years or so, the work of the Ostroms has become increasingly central to the social scientific vision of many prominent libertarian thinkers. It’s fair to say that, for many of us, our understanding of a free society is a combination of F. A. Hayek, James Buchanan, and the Ostroms. Although many libertarians are generally familiar with Hayek and Buchanan, the Ostroms are less well known outside of academia. Jayme Lemke’s essay offers a very accessible introduction to their ideas, placing them in the context of how we solve the social problems that face any society. If Hayek taught us why markets work, and Buchanan showed us why governments fail, the Ostroms focused on what we might broadly call civil society and the ways in which communities organize to solve problems that are not well-handled by markets and formal political institutions.

For the Ostroms, the key insight was that we need to find ways to encourage human cooperation so as to avoid the need for coercion. In particular, we need to recognize that governance, understood as collectively developing rules to solve social problems, is not the same thing as government. In the Ostromian vision, humans are engaged in these problem-solving activities in their various communities, from a homeowners association to a house of worship to the PTA. This overlapping set of commitments, which they called “polycentricity,” offers an alternative to the top-down bureaucracy of the formal political system. A free society is one in which we all participate in this rule-making and problem-solving, often in very informal ways. Their great fear, and it is a real one, was that if we did not take responsibility for governance in all of these decentralized and informal ways, we would be increasingly subject to rule from the top. This is a perspective that is too often missing from libertarian thought, and understanding the contributions of the Ostroms can help fill that gap. Jayme Lemke’s essay is an excellent place to start.

Steve Horwitz
Economics Editor


 

Elinor Ostrom and Vincent Ostrom dedicated their lives to searching for insight into how people can learn to live better together. The fundamental dilemma of human social organization is that we need to help each other to be able to survive, but cooperation is hard. We learn this as children fighting over the best toy in the sandbox and scheming to get one over on our siblings. We learn this again, and again, and again as adults, whenever we witness, participate in, or read about conflict, corruption, pettiness, violence, jealousy, revenge, manipulation, and intolerance. As is constantly on display in partisan politics, sometimes the mere fact that opposing values exist is enough to raise our hackles and make the very idea of cooperation irksome.

But we really do need others. As sung so beautifully by Owl & the Pussycat, “Hell is other people, but loneliness is worse.”1 Community and the safety and productivity that living together can provide—under the right conditions—is what has enabled humanity to thrive despite our sluggish limbs, weak backs, and unprotected bellies. So what are the right conditions? Adam Smith summarized them as “peace, easy taxes, and a tolerable administration of justice.”2 Specialization in a market economy and the innovation that results are the keys to a dynamic society with rising standards of living, but you’ll never get off the ground without a reasonable degree of peace and social stability. The ability to get along is also an important precondition for the strong ties, social support, and community we receive from our neighborhoods, churches, and other forms of voluntary association. It’s no exaggeration to say that the preservation and advancement of the human species require that we figure out how to share with and learn from each other, despite the fact that situations can and will emerge where people come to see taking what they need as easier than negotiating for it.

Elinor Ostrom and Vincent Ostrom were not alone in seeking generally acceptable ways of living together that could resolve, or at least ameliorate, this fundamental human dilemma. In asking how communities could encourage cooperation and discourage predation and violence, they kept good company with Adam Smith, F. A. Hayek, Mancur Olson, Douglass North, J. M. Buchanan, and others in public choice, institutional economics, and political economy. However, their contributions were unique in the extent to which they emphasized the need to understand the problem solving of imperfect people in an imperfect world. This quest led them to study problem solving in a diversity of real-world contexts, from the creation of the U.S. Constitution to the management of environmental commons to the provision of local public services such as education and police services. These seemingly diverse situations all had one thing in common: they were an opportunity to study the processes through which people deliberated, negotiated, and sometimes even fought to come to agreement on a set of rules that could solve a real social problem that was staring them straight in the face.

Below is a list of ten of the most important lessons that the Ostrom’s took from their lifetime of scholarly investigation into humanity’s attempts to solve the fundamental human dilemma. This is a significant but by no means complete selection of the insights that earned them their status as invaluable contributors to social science, and to the project of understanding how it is that a society of free and equal individuals can peacefully thrive and protect itself against the threat of violence and tyranny.

  1. Institutions matter.

    Scholars in institutional economics, public choice, and political economy often refer to the rules that the members of a community follow when they interact with each other as the institutions of that society. Institutions shape our expectations around what kinds of behavior will be rewarded and what kinds of behavior will be punished. Good institutions help people cooperate, fostering peace, economic growth, and stability. Bad institutions frustrate cooperation, fostering violence, poverty, and instability. Although not unique to the Ostroms, none of what follows would make sense if they did not subscribe to the institutional view that rules matter.

  2. Governance is all around us.

    Governments create rules, but not all rules are created by governments. The rules created by governments are considered “formal” rules and are often codified in some way. Examples include state, local, and federal laws; regulations written by administrative agencies; and the U.S. Constitution. Other rules are less formal in the sense that they are not enforced by government agencies and, ultimately, courts, but they are enforced by other types of organization and consequently still influence our behavior in a systematic way. Examples include the bylaws of your bowling club, performance standards established by a professional association, or norms around what kinds of behavior are acceptable in social spaces. It’s not illegal to tap dance at a funeral, but it’s generally understood that such a display would be unwelcome and likely to injure your reputation, and maybe even cost you some friendships. Informal rules and the ways in which they are enforced are often just as relevant to the choices we make in our daily lives as the formal rules established by governments, and they are also important as alternatives to the enforcement of formal rules by governments. If we can get along by creating our own rules, we can avoid turning to the state and the associated risks of the abuse of power and overextension of government authority.

  3. People can change the rules of the game.

    Human beings do not simply take the world around them as given. Instead, as individuals and as groups, we play an active role in creating the rules that we live by. Elinor Ostrom’s research in Governing the Commons (1990) focused on the way communities and individuals have been able to work together to protect common pool resources, like forests, water basins, and fish populations, from becoming over depleted. But we work to change and create rules in a variety of contexts, from the very small, like negotiating with your neighbors to create a neighborhood watch, to the very large, like the United States Constitution. Institutional analysis that begins with the presumption that the rule environment is fixed has no way of addressing these questions about the process of institutional change and the rule of institutional entrepreneurs.3

  4. Some rules are fake.

    You can write anything you want down on a piece of paper and call it a rule. Call it a hat, if you want, or a donut. It’s not a real rule and will not have any effect whatsoever on human behavior until people believe that it will be enforced. It is only once the participants in a system fear the consequences of their failure to play nice that they are likely to systematically adjust their behavior. In order for a rule to be stable over the long term, the belief that a rule will be enforced will likely need to be substantiated by an actual predictable enforcement process and a belief in the legitimacy of that process. This is why Elinor Ostrom emphasized how important credible commitment and monitoring are to creating durable rules. Further, the importance of enforcement to shaping whether or not people will consider a rule to be “real” and worth following is one of the reasons why fieldwork was so important for the Ostroms.4 Sorting out the real rules from the fake requires being on the ground and observing actual behavior and enforcement practices.

  5. Political power is safer and often more effective in small doses.

    The Ostroms were keenly aware of the dangers of concentrating coercive power in a single individual or organization. Vincent Ostrom emphasized Harold Lasswell’s distinction between “power with” relationships and “power over” relationships as an important way to differentiate between the power that is held over the people by a despotic government and the power that people agree to divide and share with others in a democratic system.5 This interest in understanding how “power with” systems can enable people to engage in collective action while mitigating against the danger of concentrated power is why the theory of polycentric systems is so important in the Ostroms’ scholarship. Polycentric systems—e.g. market economies, competitive local public economies (which provide public goods like education and fire response at the local level), and some types of federalism—are institutional structures within which there are many unique centers of power operating within the same rule environment. These power centers all have their own independent decision-making authority, but they are also constrained through competition and conflict with each other. Even the possibility of cooperation can serve as a constraint, as when neighboring jurisdictions might agree to reciprocate each other’s environmental safety standards.

  6. Freedom of association is important to realizing our collective potential.

    The fact that the different organizational units within polycentric systems can choose to go in different directions enables both institutional diversity and greater opportunity to learn through experimentation. When people can choose whether or not to participate in particular collective endeavors—by, for example, moving to a different school district, or choosing whether or not to be part of a farming co-operative—those collective ventures become subject to something of a market test. The venture will succeed so long as people want to participate, but people are not forced to continue contributing once it outlives its usefulness. One important implication of this line of inquiry is that like voting, deliberation, and constitutional constraints, the free entry and exit of individuals from governance structures is an important democratic mechanism that constrains political decision makers and generates information about the value of alternative approaches. So in addition to shared power being the safer strategy, it can often produce superior outcomes in a way that would be easy to overlook unless attention is paid to processes of competition, cooperation, and conflict within polycentric systems.

  7. Nothing is completely “private” or completely “public.”

    Many popular models in economics and political science leave out some of the most important features of the social world. For example, the tragedy of the commons, popularized by Hardin, suggests that unless resources are controlled by a single authority—either a private individual or a governmental entity—those resources will inevitably be damaged if not destroyed by overexploitation. However, there are many other different organizational forms that exist in between the isolated, atomistic individual and the concentrated power of large-scale governmental institutions that people can and do use to effectively resolve common pool resource problems. Social networks, civic associations, corporations, cooperatives, non-profit organizations, and professional associations are all examples of types of organizations that work to create rules. Policy recommendations beginning with the assumption that individuals are unprincipled, unrooted from community, and innately uncooperative overlook all of these voluntary, community-based solutions, leading to the use of the sledgehammer of coercive governmental intervention before individuals are given a chance to solve the problem on their own.

  8. Overconfident experts can cause a lot of harm.

    Scientific experts who over-rely on stylized models of how the world works can come to believe that those models represent a true and complete picture of specific, real social problems. Elinor Ostrom cautioned that experts could be led by the “false confidence of presumed omniscience” into an intellectual trap in which they would come to believe that they could easily solve those problems through targeted external interventions.6 With respect to natural resource and environmental policy in particular, Elinor Ostrom cautioned that the scientific models being used by social scientists were likely to “have the perverse effect of supporting increased centralization of political authority,” making it more difficult for individuals on the ground to resolve their own problems.7

  9. One size does not fit all.

    When asked in a 2010 interview for a single piece of advice on how to improve natural resource policies, Elinor Ostrom replied, “No panaceas!”8 When it comes to designing better rules, there is no one-stop shopping. Unique problems require unique solutions. In The Intellectual Crisis in Public Administration, Vincent Ostrom emphasized the extent to which the search for the one best way to administer public services and programs actually limited the ability of scholars of public administration to be able to say anything useful about how to improve those services.9 Panaceas not only don’t work, but investing time in searching for them distracts from the ability to engage in meaningful problem solving that takes local knowledge and community participation seriously.

  10. Civic participation matters.

    The Ostroms believed in getting involved on the local level. Polycentricity, federalism, and other political structures that incorporate a substantive role for local government and other community-based organizations usually do so in part because there is something inherently valuable about individuals getting directly involved. One reason individual involvement might matter is that those on the ground will have a much better understanding of the local environment, what kinds of problems need to be solved, and what obstacles those seeking to bring about change might face. Another reason individual involvement matters is that problem solving is a skill. When we practice figuring out how to solve problems for ourselves, we get better at it. This makes it more likely that people will take responsibility for resolving conflicts for themselves without resorting to authoritarianism or vigilante violence.

Elinor Ostrom and Vincent Ostrom spent over 50 years productively working together and with others in their scientific community. Reflecting back on that endeavor, Elinor Ostrom offered the following in her Nobel Prize address:

Designing institutions to force (or nudge) entirely self-interested individuals to achieve better outcomes has been the major goal posited by policy analysts for governments to accomplish for much of the past half century. Extensive empirical research leads me to argue that instead, a core goal of public policy should be to facilitate the development of institutions that bring out the best in humans.10

Conceiving of policy as something that enables people to bring their best to their communities requires a fairly radical change in mindset. Instead of deferring to the “experts,” the research of Elinor Ostrom and Vincent Ostrom suggests that people not only can but should and will be active in solving their problems for themselves. Further, embracing our potential to create rules and solve problems for ourselves is our greatest opportunity to turn towards freedom and away from governmental overreach and political oppression. Whether this insight has an enduring impact will depend on how seriously this directive is taken by both scholars and citizens.


  1. Owl & the Pussycat, “Company,” https://owlthepussycat.bandcamp.com/releases.
  2. “Adam Smith on the need for “peace, easy taxes, and a tolerable administration of justice,” (1755),” Portable Library of Liberty, May 6, 2013, http://files.libertyfund.org/pll/quotes/436.html.
  3. See, e.g., Paul Dragos Aligica, 2018, Public Entrepreneurship, Citizenship, and Self-Governance, Cambridge University Press.
  4. Boettke, Peter, Jayme Lemke, and Liya Palagashvili, 2013, “Riding in Cars with Boys: Elinor Ostrom’s Adventures with the Police,” Journal of Institutional Economics 9 (4): 407–25.
  5. Ostrom, Vincent, 1997.,The Meaning of Democracy and the Vulnerability of Democracies: A Response to Tocqueville’s Challenge, University of Michigan Press.
  6. Ostrom, Elinor, Governing the Commons, Cambridge University Press, 2015, p. 215.
  7. Ibid, p. 216.
  8. Korten, Fran, March 18, 2010, “No Panaceas! Elinor Ostrom Talks with Fran Korten,” https://www.shareable.net/blog/no-panaceas-elinor-ostrom-talks-with-fran-korten.
  9. Ostrom, Vincent, The Intellectual Crisis in American Public Administration (Third Edition), Tuscaloosa, University of Alabama Press, 2008.
  10. Ostrom, Elinor, 2010,“Beyond Markets and States: Polycentric Governance of Complex Economic Systems,” The American Economic Review 100 (3), pp. 664-65.