Feb 27, 2017

A Review of Vlad Tarko’s Elinor Ostrom: An Intellectual Biography

Tarko’s book is “the best available introduction to the unique and remarkable thought of Elinor Ostrom.”

Elinor Ostrom’s scholarship is distinctive in its transcendence of stifling ideological and disciplinary boundaries. Though she was the first woman ever to win a Nobel Prize in economics, her Ph.D. work at UCLA was in the Department of Political Science, where she first became interested in studying the systems that govern common pool resources. Ostrom’s pioneering approach to thinking about these systems emphasizes the importance of decentralized self-government, participants choosing the rules and relationships that suit their needs. Ostrom wanted to explore the disconnects between formal rules, administered by bureaucrats and planners of various kinds, and “rules-in-use”—to more deeply understand how individuals work within institutions. Ostrom’s expression of “New institutionalism” incorporates aspects of public choice theory, Hayek’s work on the dispersion and use of knowledge, and transaction cost economics.

In a concise new survey of her many contributions in these fields, Elinor Ostrom: An Intellectual Biography, economist Vlad Tarko neatly encapsulates the career of one of the great thinkers of the twentieth century. Ostrom’s thought is noted in particular for its contributions to the literature associated with the problem famously explored by Garrett Hardin in his 1968 article “The Tragedy of the Commons” (Science, Vol. 162, Issue 3859). Hardin argues that the incentives at work in common resources, those “open to all,” create a fundamental problem, a kind of race in which each user, as a “rational being,” “seeks to maximize his gain.” Hardin offers the example of a pasture, a common (perhaps we would be tempted to fall into using the term “public”) grazing land visited by a number of herdsmen. Each, Hardin contends, will want to add an animal, for the positive gain accrues to him alone while the at-first-inconspicuous costs associated with overgrazing are shared by all. Each and every herdsman tends to reach this conclusion, his sights trained on his own individual benefit, thereby “bring[ing] ruin to all.”

Presented with such intractable problems, fundamentally both social and economic, Ostrom’s method rejected “blueprint thinking” and developed a sophisticated response based on an examination of the improvised practices of real resource-users. Tarko’s third chapter, offering several examples of the tragedy of the commons, chronicles Ostrom’s break with a rigid “mainstream position” that seemed to systematically ignore the tools that groups around the world had invented to deal with commons-related issues. Ostrom had found that the prevailing debate was stunted by its restrictive fixation on a series of false choices.

Ostrom’s work carefully avoided facile binary thinking, her scholarship premised on the idea that categories like “the market” and “the state” seldom do justice to the complexity of actual human institutions. “Institutions,” she writes in Governing the Commons, “are rarely either private or public — ‘the market’ or ‘the state.’” Such categories were shortcuts, unfit to account for the vast ecosystems of arrangements that have evolved to address specific social and economic problems. Further, beyond their descriptive impoverishment, both the market and the state, at least as conventionally defined and described, are often unable to provide the proper tools for governing the commons.

Implemented “as a top-down strategy,” even privatization will inevitably fail to accomplish its goals. As Tarko explains, the idea that private property must always mean “individual ownership,” is arguably the “biggest misconception” bedeviling privatization plans. Ostrom’s work recognizes that private property needn’t be vested in a single individual; indeed, it is often the case (as with, for example, joint-stock corporations) that group ownership better serves the underlying goals of participants in a project or enterprise. Tarko further notes that private property itself is similarly misunderstood, characterized imprecisely in ways that underplay its versatility and multifaceted nature. Ostrom’s thinking on institutions suggests that if we think of property not as a monolithic unity, but as a bundle, infinitely customizable and comprised of several subsidiary rights (which themselves may be reduced further still), then a range of options that are neither strictly “public” nor “private” in the traditional sense come into focus. Once the intricacies of real-world property relations are duly taken into consideration, popular dichotomies (the market vs. the state, individual vs. collective, private vs. public, and even right vs. left) begin to break down; as explanatory categories, they are revealed to be largely incoherent, not only oversimple but frequently self-contradictory. Tarko deftly explains these insights, contextualizing them both as within the broader traditions of public choice and institutional analysis and within the story of Ostrom’s extraordinary life. He manages to distill an intellectual corpus of enormous breadth in a manner that both accurately captures Ostrom’s ideas and yet is understandable to a lay reader.

Tarko shows that Ostrom’s groundbreaking thinking on institutional issues integrates her husband Vincent Ostrom’s assessment of an “intellectual crisis” that begins with the “command and control” thinking of progressive thinkers like Woodrow Wilson and John Dewey. Wilson and Dewey reduced the public to government, reserving all action on public issues to the centers of power provided by government. As Vincent Ostrom explains, for these progressives, the public’s “consciousness of itself” is a function of government, of its “deliberations and actions.” The Ostroms favored a polycentric approach that preserves the autonomy of individuals and their voluntary associations. Elinor Ostrom had tremendous faith in the ingenuity of free people and communities, not a blind faith, but one confirmed by her observations of cooperation at work.

Such firsthand observation was tremendously important to Ostrom. Tarko notes that Ostrom’s program of empirical research did not indulge the problematic tendency, so widespread in the contemporary economics profession, to treat econometric analysis as “the sole approach to empirical analysis,” taking no account of observable human behaviors that cannot readily be reduced to math and models. Ostrom sought to understand institutions and individuals’ behavior within them through a workshop approach, through intimate interaction rather than sterile study, conducted from a safe distance. Ostrom’s work, Tarko observes throughout his book, honed in on the process of institutional evolution. Just as biologists understand the DNA and genetic mutations of a species within the context of the environmental factors that shaped and inspired them, Ostrom sought a deeper understanding of institutions through a deliberate “focus on the process of their emergence.” In Ostrom’s formulation of the analogy, what she calls “rule configuration” is the genotype, the “set of instructions” antecedent to the several other factors that influence real-life action situations (or “games”). The phenotype, the structural composition of the organism as actually expressed, is particular to and informed by the environment—the incentives at play, the character and number of people participating, their knowledge, etc. This emphasis on the importance of competition between ideas, not just incentives, is among the qualities that distinguish the “Bloomington School” founded by Ostrom from other members of the public-choice family.

Summarizing these distinctive features of the Bloomington School’s approach to institutional analysis, Tarko writes “that efficient institutions are more likely to emerge when self-governance is allowed.” Understanding Ostrom’s nuanced conception of self-governance is therefore indispensable to an accurate picture of her contributions. For Ostrom, the idea of self-governance is intimately bound to that of bottom-up evolution, the cooperative responses of communities to, in Ostrom’s words, “the nonlinearity and complexity of many action situations.” Given such convolution, Ostrom argues, it is impossible to anticipate both the situations themselves and the response for which they seem to call. Institutional designs plagued by centralization and gigantism chronically underappreciate or ignore the subtleties of localized knowledge; with their innumerable protocols and policies—coldly uniform and imposed from above—centralized, hierarchical organizations preclude even the possibility of creative, adaptive responses to problems. Specific, spontaneous solutions, discrete and tailored to the particularities of time and place, are discarded in favor of fixed approaches that have been appropriately vetted through the proper channels. Thus are hierarchy and uniformity very often self-defeating. Organizations implement them that they might avoid reinventing the wheel whenever an issue emerges, incorporating accumulated “best practices” for which every member of the team is responsible. But in practice this one-size-fits all approach costs the organization specialized forms of knowledge and competency that simply cannot be reduced to standardized procedures. And while Ostrom was not the first to notice this, Tarko’s book demonstrates the originality and importance of her contributions.

Elinor Ostrom: An Intellectual Biography is an illuminating tribute to a true visionary, whose ideas advanced the essentially libertarian notion that self-governing individuals and groups—not, as Tarko writes, “objective analysts sitting in the national capital”—are best positioned to solve their own institutional and resource-governance questions. Tarko combines a compelling picture of Ostrom’s career as a scholar and educator with the background information necessary to understand the significance and exceptionality of that career. Tarko’s volume is, in short, the best available introduction to the unique and remarkable thought of Elinor Ostrom.