Elinor Ostrom is the first woman ever to win the Nobel Prize in Economics in its forty-one-year history.
She made her name critiquing a concept in the social sciences called the “tragedy of the commons.” This concept assumes that common property will inevitably be overused and degraded in the absence of private ownership. Not necessarily so, Ostrom said. She studied communally owned property in places ranging from Southern California and coastal Maine to Nepal and Kenya. “Self-organizing arrangements enable people to learn more about one another’s needs and the ecology around them,” she writes in Understanding Institutional Diversity. “Learning problem-solving skills . . . enables them to reach out and more effectively examine far-reaching problems that affect all peoples living on this Earth.”
It was this insight the Nobel Committee appreciated. “Elinor Ostrom has challenged the conventional wisdom that common property is poorly managed and should be either regulated by central authorities or privatized,” it stated on awarding her the prize last fall.
Ostrom received her Ph.D. in political science from UCLA, and for more than three decades has been teaching political science at Indiana University. She is a past president of the American Political Science Association, as well as a member of the National Academy of Sciences.
I met Ostrom in February at the Indiana University campus in Bloomington. Her office is in a small building in a residential-looking neighborhood. The waiting area had artifacts from all over the world and was adorned with a banner congratulating Ostrom on her Nobel. At the end of the interview in a large conference room, we chatted about her visits to Nepal, where she has studied how rural communities have managed irrigation systems to the benefit of all.
Q: What was your initial reaction to being awarded the Nobel?
Elinor Ostrom: You don’t want me to scream now. [Laughs.] I was surprised and thrilled. It was at 6:30 in the morning. It was an unbelievably wonderful phone call.
Q: How has your life changed in the months after that?
Ostrom: I was teaching in the fall. In fact, I taught the day after the Nobel phone call. My students were surprised I came, but I did. Since then, I’ve been very busy.
Q: Could you summarize your work?
Ostrom: I’ve been interested in democratic governance at the very base. A lot of work has focused on the national level—elections and all the rest—and that’s very important. But if we keep our image of democracy as having elected national officials, this moves toward taking away the capabilities of people at the smaller scale: from schools and parks to fisheries and irrigation systems. We need to be thinking about governance at multiple scales.
Q: And what are the broader implications in terms of policy-making?
Ostrom: We need to give people capabilities to adapt systems to their local setting and their local norms, and not presume that every local unit has the same set of rules.
Q: How does that tie into the current debate about climate change?
Ostrom: I advocate a polycentric approach. If we change our life patterns, our health is better, the heating bills are less, the community doesn’t have to build a new power plant, there can be very substantial positives at a small to medium scale. As more and more people see that, we can do quite a bit. Still we need to be challenging those guys up there: “C’mon, let’s get the global agreements that we need.” But there is no single solution.
Q: What’s your stance on privatization and property rights?
Ostrom: I don’t equate them. So, and in the Nobel speech I state this very clearly, at an earlier juncture we thought that property rights meant one right and only one right: the right to sell. That was what I learned in graduate school, and that was the dominant thinking. As we were doing massive analysis of what people were doing out there in the field, we found many people who did not have the right to sell but had managed well. Many groups are able—if they can have management and decide who is in and who is out—to do very well, even if they can’t sell. They still have property rights.
Q: And how would that relate to your position on privatization of common resources?
Ostrom: In some places, privatization has worked well. I’m not anti-it. I’m anti-it as a panacea.
Q: Libertarians have tried to co-opt your work by saying it shows the unsuitability of large-scale, top-down economic arrangements.
Ostrom: A question is: How do we change some of our governance arrangements so that we can have more trust? We must have a court system, and that court system needs to be reliable and trustworthy. The important thing about large-scale is the court system. For example, you would not have civil rights for people of black origin in the United States but for a federal court system and also the courage of Martin Luther King and others—people who had the courage to challenge, and a legal system where, at least in some places, the right to challenge was legitimate.
We have a colleague working in Liberia. You had thugs recruiting young kids until recently. Having a legal system that does not allow thugs to capture kids, torment them, and make them use weapons is very important.
Q: What are you working on now?
Ostrom: I’m trying to understand that when we’re dealing with social ecological systems—and this would be large-scale forests, the oceans of the world, climate change—how do we get a better framework for analysis? Fortunately, we’d had a very major book that we had been working on for several years, and it was sent to Princeton University Press in January.
Q: Your getting the Nobel Prize in Economics is significant in that you’re the first woman to win it.
Ostrom: I hope it’s more for my work than my gender. I was thrilled, I was honored as a woman, having fought a lot of my life against the presumption that women would not be professionals. I think that’s changing. We now have more women graduate students in the social sciences. There were a number of women last year who received the Nobel, and so that was a good sign to the future. I don’t think it will be very long, and there’ll be another woman. Maybe even this year. Who knows?
Amitabh Pal is the managing editor of The Progressive.
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