Defense of the Lynn Ostrom Voluntary Association

Press conference with 2009 Nobel laureates (Wikimedia Commons)
Reprinted from Law and Freedom

Eleanor Ostrom’s family lived in Beverly Hills, but she grew up a “poor kid.” None of his family ever went to college, for which his mother saw no need, but he graduated with honors at UCLA. She was discouraged from studying mathematics because she was a woman, and was denied admission to UCLA’s undergraduate program in economics because she lacked the necessary mathematical background. Instead of studying political science, she met a 14-year-old senior professor who would be her husband and lifelong colleague. Moving with him to Indiana University, he could not get a faculty position, just volunteered to teach an evening course and get a post that no faculty member wanted. Contrary to the prevailing economic view that without external authority, shared resources such as fishing stocks and pastures would be reduced, he showed that local users could take effective measures to conserve them. Although not an economist, in 2009 she became the first woman to win the Nobel Prize in this field. This month marks the 10th anniversary of his death

Polycentrism was a central theme in Lynn Ostrom’s work. A centralized system is one in which all the problems faced by a community or organization are solved in a top-down manner by a single authority such as the federal government. Such a unit determines an optimal solution and then imposes it on everyone else. In contrast, a multidisciplinary approach allows people and groups to work together to create a way to solve problems, embodying the view that the best qualified to do so are usually the people who live with them every day. A central government may have the power to impose a solution and even punish those who do not comply, but such approaches are often incompatible with local conditions and deprive people of the opportunity to implement it for themselves. Their development is hampered. As a citizen.

Shortly after the Astromas arrived in Indiana, they studied the impact of police force size on citizen satisfaction. A larger energy scale will benefit the economy, such as greater bargaining power in purchasing power and greater efficiency in training programs. Yet they found that small and medium-sized forces were generally preferred, as they could perform their tasks based on personal relationships with community members and better tailor their tasks to the needs of each community. Polycentrism does not mean keeping everything small. Instead, it means that all functions work best on a smaller scale, such as policing, allowing more local agencies to perform, while other functions, such as purchasing and training, are allowed to operate collaboratively and on a larger scale. The same is true of other sectors, such as education, where local school boards offer key benefits over state-wide or national-level approaches.

Here comes another key theme of Ostrom’s work – collaboration. Many political theorists have long held that the best way to solve a problem is to impose a solution from above. Lacking such guidance, they thought that those involved would pursue their own interests at the expense of others, leading to chaos and destruction. In addition, those who are directly involved in situations such as school boards are often made up of ordinary citizens who have no advanced training. Only experts, they assume, can reach the best solution to any problem. Yet many experts often have little or no skin in the game and only study long enough situations to create a solution, where the locals, who have to live with it for a long time, have a strong incentive to observe and correct the arrangements for their work. . The value of a good solution is so great that it provides an incentive for communities to collaborate effectively

The modus operandi of the Astros was extremely collaborative and collaborative. At Indiana University, they established a workshop, not a department, a school, or an institution, but a workshop on political theory and policy analysis. As such, it was both highly practical and even crafty in principle. Emphasis was placed on working together as a team to understand real-world problems and identify real-world solutions. The purpose was not to impose a specific set of disciplinary principles or methods, but to understand the problems from any combination of perspectives seemed best. Its study ranged from Kenya to Nepal to Los Angeles and had many points in between. Lynn Ostrom was famous for her dedication to her students and colleagues, and when she won the Nobel Prize, she donated part of her stipend to the workshop.

Biologist Garrett Hardin’s response to a highly influential 1968 research paper on the so-called “Tragedy of the Commons”, best known for his work at the Astrum Commons. Recalling a 19th-century essay by William Lloyd, Hardin suggested that uncontrolled common pastures, the commons, would inevitably be over-grazed, writing

Every human being is bound by a system that forces him to raise his cattle without limits – in a world that is limited. Destruction is the destination to which all people run, each pursuing their own interests in a society that believes in the freedom of the common man.

Of course, this analysis is not limited to pastures, and can be extended to include natural resources such as rivers, fish stocks and the atmosphere, as well as any general resources such as office staplers or copy machines. On Hardin’s account, people free to use such resources exhaust them and sometimes destroy themselves in the process. Only coercive rules can hold them back.

Ostrom tested the idea in the real world that in many cases centrally imposed solutions did not succeed. When he talked to people who shared common resources, such as lakes, fishing stocks, and wells, he discovered that they had found ways to avoid public tragedy, and they did so in a self-governing fashion. In order for such solutions to work, certain conditions, which he called design principles, are necessary. The group in question must have a clear boundary; It must be able to use to match the local conditions; Its members must be able to amend the rules; Its legislation must respect external authority; Its members must be able to observe each other’s behavior; It must have prohibitions for those who break the rules; It must have a way of resolving disputes; And responsibilities must be assigned from the lowest level to the highest level. Such measures, he pointed out, could save resources not only for the next season, but also for future generations.

Another key principle of Ostrom’s method is his empiricism. He was more of an Aristotelian than a Platonist, in the sense that when faced with a question, he often looked for a community and saw how they were addressing it, making it a point to talk to those who were doing it. She was not opposed to theory, having practically spent her entire adult life as a theorist, in partnership with her husband Vincent, but she believed that observation played an essential role in the progress of understanding. He famously held that any resource system that works in practice could work in theory. In other words, the world of fish is not bound and defined by what our nets can catch, and any method of resource management that works in practice represents a call to correct any theory that says it does not exist. He had a little patience for Protestant theorists who would cut and expand the world to fit their model.

Astrom is also valuable for diversity. What works in Mexico may not work in Nigeria and what works in Nigeria may not work in Indonesia. Unlike many contemporary thinkers and politicians, he was not looking for one-size-fits-all solutions. He truly nurtured diversity in the institutional system, in part because he saw that such systems needed to be as diverse as communities in order to serve them. Such communities are multifaceted and unique, and require similar approaches. Yet under the multiple factors that always need to be considered, he saw universal and enduring principles. For example, managing resources needs to be a simple task, organized from bottom to top, and people need to know each other well enough to be able to trust each other. As far as contemporary life is becoming more distant and impersonal, he could say, it is hindering the development of prosperous communities and people.

Thanks to Ostrom’s work, we’ve rediscovered some things about individuals and communities that have been forgotten by many economists. The world is not governed by an inviolable dog-eating-dog law. People do not put themselves first in everything. Trust and cooperation are not for sucking. Instead, given the opportunity, community members will often join together to solve their problems, share both authority and responsibility, and develop a much better solution than any off-site group of experts. In his work, we find an experimental validity of the importance of voluntary associations in Talkville, which he called the “basic science” of democracy. Ostrom helped ensure that such voluntary cooperation was the best remedy for the development-stunting effects of administrative centralization.

Richard Gunderman

Richard Gunderman

Richard Gunderman, MD, PhD, is the Chancellor Professor of Radiology, Pediatrics, Medical Education, Philosophy, Liberal Arts, Philanthropy and Medical Humanities and Health Studies at Indiana University.

Her most recent books are Marie Curie and Contagion.

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