Elinor Ostrom’s Nobel-winning Commons

On the Creative Commons blog I highlight the connection between 2009 Nobel Prize in Economics winner ‘s work on the governance of and relatively recent work on knowledge commons, including a 2003 paper she co-authored addressing the connection.

Great choice. There are countless posts in the econoblogosphere about the prize — I’ll mention two. Paul Romer (a favorite to win the Nobel himself) praises her practice of economics, essentially as being based on an investigation of reality rather than wishful thinking (what Romer calls a “skyhook”):

They, more than anyone else in the profession, spelled out the program that economists should follow. To make the rules that people follow emerge as an equilibrium outcome instead of a skyhook, economists must extend our models of preferences and gather field and experimental evidence on the nature of these preferences.

Economists who have become addicted to skyhooks, who think that they are doing deep theory but are really just assuming their conclusions, find it hard to even understand what it would mean to make the rules that humans follow the object of scientific inquiry. If we fail to explore rules in greater depth, economists will have little to say about the most pressing issues facing humans today – how to improve the quality of bad rules that cause needless waste, harm, and suffering.

Cheers to the Nobel committee for recognizing work on one of the deepest issues in economics. Bravo to the political scientist who showed that she was a better economist than the economic imperialists who can’t tell the difference between assuming and understanding.

Alex Tabarok (who I’ve mentioned before on the related problem of private provision of public goods provides a summary of Ostrom’s work on the well-governed commons. Here’s Tabarrok’s excellent closing paragraph:

For Ostrom it’s not the tragedy of the commons but the opportunity of the commons. Not only can a commons be well-governed but the rules which help to provide efficiency in resource use are also those that foster community and engagement. A formally government protected forest, for example, will fail to protect if the local users do not regard the rules as legitimate. In Hayekian terms legislation is not the same as law. Ostrom’s work is about understanding how the laws of common resource governance evolve and how we may better conserve resources by making legislation that does not conflict with law.

This speaks directly to commons-pool (rivalrous, non-excludable) goods, but applies analogously to public (non-rivalrous, non-excludable) goods.

7 Responses

  1. Andy says:

    …and Obama won the Peace prize after licensing the content on his president-elect website under CC. Coincidence? I don’t think so…

  2. I think it prevents a proper understanding of IP to think of intellectual works as non-excludable/non-rivalrous. That only follows from the IP maximalist’s notion that intellectual works are universal, supernaturally pervasive goods, that the monopolies of copyright and patent protect as the property of their rightful owners.

    The thing is, intellectual works are not universals. They are not supernaturally able to collapse into a single object by dint of similarity, and hence able to belong to a single owner. Intellectual works are always discrete physical instances. Their similarity (even indistinguishable) confuses us into mistaking them as the same object.

    So, don’t be blinded by the similarity. Realise that all intellectual works are independent objects, copies or not. Each instance is the property of its possessor.

    From that more natural (non-supernatural) understanding you can then recognise intellectual works as rivalrous and excludable.

    Even though we may mistakenly believe we have the same Tom Jones CD, we do not. You have yours, and I have mine. You can’t use my CD whilst I’m using it, I can exclude you from my CD, and vice versa. The indistinguishable similarity of these CDs does not cause them to collapse into a single object, nor does it permit a distant owner of all likenesses to supernaturally govern the use of their property.

    It is the unnatural monopoly that gives rise to the idea of supernatural ownership, not supernatural ownership that gives rise to the need for a monopoly to protect it.

  3. Revisiting this post since Ostrom sadly died today.

    Crosbie, you’re right that too much is made of non-rivalrousness/non-excludability, especially the latter, for which excludability obviously can be constructed. This did not fully sink in for me until discussions with Silke Helfrich last year that I’ll blog about eventually.

  4. “Infinite goods” is another unhelpful concept.

    Occam’s razor and all that.

    We can understand that copyright and patent are uneconomic, unethical, and unnecessary without needing to invent sophisticated concepts to do so

    I look forward to you blogging about your discussions.

  5. [...] costs, decreasing alienation and rent seeking, increasing autonomy and solidarity. Although a nobel prize in economics has been awarded for research on certain kinds of commons, my feeling is that the class is severely [...]

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