Organizational Capacity Building

Candace LaRue and Associates

More Wisdom from Elinor Ostrom

Garret Hardin wrote “The Tragedy of the Commons” in support of private property rights. In the commons, he argued, there was a free for all. Because no one had an incentive to protect the whole commons, everyone would over graze their sheep, and the pasture would be degraded. He used the example of the actual commons in England, with details in his economic parable about putting up fences, etc.

The problem? He obviously knew nothing about the history of the commons he used in his example. (what? An economist who doesn’t know history?). The commons, sheep grazing and all, was typically very well-managed and pastures lasted for generations. Much longer, actually, than pastures in industrial farming.

Hardin did have a point, however – resources with no property management tend to be degraded. But, these resources are open access resources, not the commons. Open access resources are nominally open to everyone, but in reality used by the most rich and powerful (that would be one of Jim Boyce’s lines). Common property, unlike open access resources, are managed by a community. If you over graze your sheep, I will call your mother and she will make you stop (of course there are also more complicated, formal versions of common property management as well).

In Hardin’s mind, and for most economists, the only two alternatives are private property or state property, but common property is another real, already existing form of property rights that has been around for thousands of years and can work very well to protect important resources in some settings.

Understanding how the commons can be managed effectively is important in urban, low-income communities because safe public space is a much needed resource (see the work of RJ Sampson). Even when public space is owned by a private owner, it is also a commons to some degree – like a coffee shop where everyone hangs out. It is owned by someone, but common property norms help protect its public space features.

Seems like common sense, right? Well, it is, but only because people like Elinor Ostrom have explained it so clearly.

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Elinor Ostrom leaves behind a powerful legacy

Elinor Ostrom died on Tuesday, at age 78. She is one of my inspirations , and I know she is for many others as well. She is also the only woman to have won the Nobel Prize in Economics so far.

One point of her’s that I remember time and time again is this: Communal property rights are most successful when they have support at other institutional levels. Communal management of a resource like a fishery or a forest works best when, for example, the government helps keep large fishing vessels from violating the boundaries set for the fishery. Communities working to redefine and energize their local economies need the government to have their backs.

There are so many other kernels of wisdom that come out of her work, and I will try to post some more about her in the next week or so. I’m sorry I never got to meet her.

Thank you, Elinor, for your life’s work!

Obituary from Chicago Tribune

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