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Elinor Ostrom: Governing the Commons:
the evolution of institutions for collective action
(Cambridge University Press: 1990)

“The tragedy of the commons, the prisoner’s dilemma, and the logic of collective action are closely related...models that have defined the accepted way of viewing many problems that individuals face when attempting to achieve collective benefits. At the heart of each of these models is the free-rider problem. Whenever one person cannot be excluded from the benefits that others provide, each person is motivated not to contribute to the joint effort, but to free-ride on the efforts of others.... What makes these models so interesting and so powerful is that they capture important aspects of many different problems that occur in diverse settings in all parts of the world. What makes these models so dangerous - when they are used metaphorically as the foundation for policy - is that the constraints that are assumed to be fixed for the purpose of analysis are taken on faith as being fixed in empirical settings, unless authorities change them.... As long as individuals are viewed as prisoners, policy prescriptions will address this metaphor.”
(Ostrom, pp.6-7)

The astounding growth of fluent and accessible science writing - by scientists - over the last few decades has, unfortunately, little touched the social sciences (with the recent - and partial - exceptions of psychology and economics). The heartland of the social sciences, in particular - sociology - is still publicly represented by appallingly stilted & verbose prose, dominated by the relentless use of the passive voice -  which is about as inviting as a death certificate. And, sadly, this book - albeit much better written than most - still partly lives up to this description... Still, I am going to suggest - strongly, mind you - that you do need to read it. Because there’s simply no substitute for Governing the Commons.

The reasons for this, however, will take some explaining for those unfamiliar with this literature. It has been a truism for well over thirty years now, in the more rigorous end of the social sciences, that commons - collectively owned resources - are inherently subject to fact, Garrett Hardin’s phrase “the tragedy of the commons” has become a social sciences cliche. The trouble is, as Ostrom explains, such models are the basis of  far too much over-generalization, whilst the conditions for their applicability are rarely cited, and substantial confusion exists between common goods proper, and Common-Pool Resources (CPRs) - the subject of this work. But, I’d better let her explain:

“Failure to distinguish between the subtractability of the resource units and the jointness of the resource system has in the past contributed to confusion about the relationship of CPRs to public or collective goods.... There is as much temptation to avoid contributing to the provision of a resource system as there is to avoid contributing to the provision of public security or weather forecasts. Theoretical propositions that are derived solely from the difficulty of exclusion are applicable to the provision of both CPRs and collective goods. But one’s use of a weather forecast does not subtract from the availability of that forecast to others, just as one’s consumption of public security does not reduce the general level of security available in a community. ‘Crowding effects’ and ‘overuse’ problems are chronic in CPR situations, but absent in regard to pure public goods.... Thus, propositions derived from a theory of public goods that are based on the nonsubtractive attributes of those goods are not applicable to an analysis of appropriation and use of subtractable resource units. Appropriation and use of the resource units are more closely related to the theory of private goods than to the theory of public goods. On the other hand, the process of designing, implementing, and enforcing a set of rules to co-ordinate provision activities is equivalent to the provision of a local collective good...[And] without a fair, orderly, and efficient method of allocating resource units, local appropriators have little motivation to contribute to the continued provision of the resource system.”
(Ostrom, pp.32-3)

Now, this may seem all very dry & technical...hardly the sort of thing the laity need to concern themselves with? And yet, given that government itself is now often described as essentially a collective goods problem - and that the models Ostrom critiques have proven to be the foundation of the neo-liberal anti-government ideology which has swept the West during the last few decades - I’d suggest that we do need to understand exactly how such models are flawed, what the empirical counter-evidence clearly demonstrates, and what this can teach us about democracy’s inherent strengths and limitations. But, perhaps the most immediate problem, as Ostrom observes, is that current theories simply never give democracy - and its analogues - any kind of chance at all:

“The models that social scientists tend to use for analyzing CPR problems have the perverse effect of supporting increased centralization of political authority. First, the individuals using CPRs are viewed as if they are capable of short-term maximization, but not of long-term reflection about joint strategies to improve joint outcomes. Second, these individuals are viewed as if they are in a trap and cannot get out without an external authority imposing a solution. Third, the institutions that individuals may have established are ignored or rejected as inefficient, without examining how these institutions may help them acquire information, reduce monitoring and enforcement costs, and equitably allocate appropriation rights and provision duties. Fourth, the solutions presented for ‘the’ government to impose are themselves based on models of idealized markets or idealized states.”
(Ostrom, p.216)

The bulk of Ostrom’s work is devoted to surveying a genuine wealth of empirical studies of CPR governance situations - some going back for many hundreds of years. I have restricted quotation from these here to the following brief example - for reasons of space - but it is worth pointing out that Governing the Commons draws upon thousands of such studies...thus making Ostrom’s critique overwhelming in its empirical dimension. So, the commons does not have to be a tragedy at all - should the correct conditions be met. As we shall see, however, it is arguable that our contemporary representative democracies offer a poor fit w/successful models for governance of the commons... But, we get ahead of ourselves.

“Let us now briefly consider a solution devised by participants in a field setting - Alanya, Turkey - that cannot be characterized as either central regulation or privatization....The economic viability of the fishery was threatened by two factors: First, unrestrained use of the fishery had led to hostility and, at times, violent conflict among the users. Second, competition among fishers for the better fishing spots had increased production costs, as well as the level of uncertainty.... Early in the 1970s, members of the local cooperative [which included only half of local fishermen] began experimenting with an ingenious system for allotting fishing sites to local fishers. After more than a decade of trial-and-error efforts, the rules used by the Alanya inshore fishers are as follows:

* Each September, a list of eligible fishers is prepared, consisting of all licensed fishers in Alanya, regardless of co-op membership.

* Within the area normally used by Alanya fishers, all usable fishing locations are named and listed. These sites are spaced so that the nets set in one site will not block the fish that should be available at the adjacent sites.

* These named fishing locations and their assignments are in effect from September to May.

*In September, the eligible fishers draw lots, and are assigned to the named fishing locations.

* From September to January, each day each fisher moves east to the next location. After January, the fishers move west. This gives the fishers equal opportunities at the stocks that migrate from east to west between September and January, and reverse their migration through the area from January to May.”
(Ostrom, pp.18-19)

“Rules themselves vary in terms of monitoring and enforcement costs.... Rules that unambiguously state that some action - no matter who undertakes it - is proscribed are less costly to monitor than are rules that require more information about who is pursuing a particular behavior and why.... Rules limiting harvesting technology, such as those used in the Nova Scotian fisheries, are also less costly to enforce, as compared with rules specifying a quantity of a resource to be withdrawn. Rules that bring together those who would be tempted to cheat and those who would be particularly harmed by such cheating are also easier to monitor than are rules that depend on accidental discovery of a rule-breaker by someone who may be only indirectly harmed by the infraction. When irrigators using a canal are assigned particular time slots, as in Murcia and Orihuela, each is motivated to be sure to receive his full time slot of water, and to be sure that the next irrigator does not try to take water too soon. At the time of a switch from one irrigator to the next, both are likely to be present. They ensure by their presence that the rules are being followed. Monitoring the rules devised in the Alanya fishery involves minimal costs, for similar reasons.”
(Ostrom, pp.204-5)

Whilst the Alanya example is comparatively simple, it suggests many of the key elements in successful CPR management. Bottom-up governance - including gradual development /refinement of working rules -  is crucial, as is detailed working knowledge of the exact nature and variability of the resource concerned. Self-policing is common, as it cuts management costs enormously, but it must needs be carefully tailored so that those who are harmed by cheating have clear incentives to monitor the situation...otherwise, self-regulation cannot work. Governing the Commons is full of such simple - yet powerful - design suggestions, drawn from a multitude of practical situations, including a systematic examination of exactly why commons governance can fail, under a variety of conditions. While I have saved Ostrom’s overall set of design guidelines for the conclusion of this review, she also draws upon the conclusions of other researchers on more limited questions, as well as herself suggesting valuable preconditions for success. All of these are thought-provoking - particularly Netting’s claims re marginal land - and significantly add to the value of this work:

“ five attributes to land-use patterns with with the differences between communal and individual land tenure. He argues that communal forms of land tenure are better suited to the problems that appropriators face when (1) the value of production per unit of land is low, (2) the frequency or dependability of use or yield is low, (3) the possibility of improvement or intensification is low, (4) a large territory is needed for effective use, and (5) relatively large groups are required for capital-investment activities.”
(Ostrom, p.63)

“Let us consider a CPR in which appropriators face problems in a remote location under a political regime that is basically indifferent.... In such a setting, the likelihood of CPR appropriators adopting a series of incremental changes in operational rules to improve joint welfare will be positively related to the following internal characteristics:

1 Most appropriators share a common judgement that they will be harmed if they do not adopt an alternative rule.

2 Most appropriators will be affected in similar ways by the proposed rule changes.

3 Most appropriators highly value the continuation activities from this CPR; in other words, they have low discount rates.

4 Appropriators face relatively low information, transformation, and enforcement costs.

5 Most appropriators share generalized norms of reciprocity and trust that can be used as initial social capital.

6 The group appropriating from the CPR is relatively small and stable.”
(Ostrom, p.211)

Asignificant part of the problem Ostrom encountered when attempting to match models against the realities revealed by CPR studies, is that the latter operate via much more complex incentives and rewards - which simply cannot easily be modeled. Thus the predictions based upon econometric approaches are simply inapplicable here, and tinkering with the ground rules is essential in devising a viable system - whilst such tinkering is ruled-out by the basic assumptions used by model-builders. The result is a radical disconnect, in a whole variety of ways:

“One can predict that in a highly competitive environment, those who do not search for and select alternative rules that can enhance net benefits will lose out to those who are successful in adopting better rules....[But] CPR [Common-Pool Resource] situations are rarely as powerful in driving participants - even survivors - toward efficiency as are competitive markets. Nor is there any single variable, such as market price, that can be used as the foundation for making rational choices in a CPR environment. Simply following short-term profit maximization in response to the market price for a resource unit may, in a CPR environment, be exactly the strategy that will destroy the CPR, leaving everyone worse off. Nonmonetized relationships may be of importance. It is thus not a judicious theoretical strategy to presume that choices about rules are made to maximize some single observable variable. The level of uncertainty when selecting new rules is far greater than the level of uncertainty when selecting pricing strategies when demand and supply are fixed. The intended outcomes of using new rules are not automatically achieved. They depend on many future choices to be made by many different individuals as to how they interpret the rules, and whether or not they will follow the rules, monitor each other, and impose sanctions on nonconformance.”
(Ostrom, pp.207-8)

“Among many academics, there are strong preferences for tight analytical models that will yield clear predictions. To make a model tractable, theorists must make simplifying assumptions. Many of these assumptions are equivalent to setting a parameter.... Because the resulting model appears to be relatively simple, with few ‘moving parts’, it may be considered by some to be general, rather than the special model that it is. Apparent simplicity and generality are not, however, equivalent. Setting a variable equal to a constant usually narrows, rather than broadens, the range of applicability of a model. Further, policies based on models that represent the structures of situations as unchanging or exogenously fixed, even if repeated...[only] demonstrate what individuals will do when they are in a situation that they cannot change. We do not learn from these models what individuals will do when they have autonomy to craft their own instituions, and can affect each other’s norms and perceived benefits”
(Ostrom, p.184)

“Many policy prescriptions are themselves no more than metaphors. Both the centralizers and the privatizers frequently advocate oversimplified, idealized institutions - paradoxically, almost ‘institution-free’ institutions. An assertion that central regulation is necessary tells us nothing about the way a central agency should be constituted, what authority it should have, how the limits on its authority should be maintained, how it will obtain information, or how its agents should be selected, motivated to do their work, and have their performances monitored and rewarded or sanctioned. An assertion that the imposition of private property rights is necessary tells us nothing about how that bundle of rights is to be defined, how the various attributes of the goods involved will be measured, who will pay for the costs of excluding nonowners from access, how conflicts over rights will be adjudicated, or how the residual interests of the right-holders in the resource system itself will be organized.”
(Ostrom, p.22)

And the critiques just keep coming. Not since Paul Ormerod’s The Death of Economics have I encountered a text which so clearly outlines/undermines the fundamental assumptions underlying a body of theory. But, as we shall see, the value of this work extends far beyond critique, as it allows us to significantly extend our understandings of all self-governing bodies, and - just possibly - open up new possibilities for their reform...

“Nesting of rules within rules is the source of considerable confusion and debate [amongst theorists].... For the purpose of analysis, the theorist has to assume that some rules already exist and are exogenous for the purposes of a particular analysis.... [And] changing the rules at any level of analysis will increase the uncertainty that individuals will face.... Further, it is usually the case that operational rules are easier to change than collective-choice rules, and collective-choice rules are easier to change than constitutional-choice rules.... But self-organizing and self-governing individuals trying to cope with problems in field settings go back and forth across levels as a key strategy for solving problems. Individuals who have no self-organizing and self-governing authority are stuck in a single-tier world. The best they can do is to adopt strategies within the bounds that are given”
(Ostrom, pp.52-4)

“The problem of how a set of principals can engage in mutual monitoring of conformance to a set of their own rules is not easily addressed within the confines of collective-action theory. In fact, the usual theoretical prediction is that they will not do so.... Without monitoring, there can be no credible committment; without credible commitment, there is no reason to propose new rules. The process unravels from both ends, because the problem of supply is presumed unsolvable in the first place. But some individuals have created institutions, committed themselves to follow rules, and monitored their own conformance to their agreements, as well as their conformance to the rules in a CPR situation. Trying to understand how they have done this is the challenge of this study.”
(Ostrom, p.45)

“Adopting contingent strategies enhances the likelihood of monitoring. Monitoring enhances the probability of adopting contingent strategies. Adding the capacity to use graduated sanctions initially for their information value and eventually for their deterrence value, one can begin to understand how a complex configuration of rules used by strategic individuals helps to solve both the problems of commitment and the problems of mutual monitoring. The weight of explanation does not fall on a single variable. Where individuals follow rules and engage in mutual monitoring, reinforcing institutional arrangements and individual strategies bolster each other.”
(Ostrom, p.187)

Elinor Ostrom’s Governing the Commons provides a major limitation/modification to the over-generalized (ideological) critiques of governance (as a whole) so often blandly retailed by policymakers in recent times. However, the book’s broader implications go far beyond this, once a few basic assumptions are made. These are:1.That government can be re-conceived as a tangled network of common goods and CPR problems, with the latter in fact dominating the process, as well as supplying its most intractable difficulties, 2: That the superior solutions thrown up by bottom-up CPR approaches therefore provide a warrant for the (strong) assumption that genuinely bottom-up democratic governance offers the most sophisticated/robust solution to governance as such, and therefore: 3: We probably should try re-designing democracy - using CPR cases as a guide - as a genuinely bottom-up nested hierarchy. This task may well be enormous but, given our current discontents, it also just may be the best thing we can do, for now. And, after all, those unwilling to plan will never be able to seize those (rare) chances in which to build...

The summation of (literally) thousands of highly specialized, detailed & varied case studies, Ostrom’s Governing the Commons reminds me, in some ways, of Eric Havelock’s marvellous The Liberal Temper in Greek Politics. Both are highly scholarly & technical works that, nonetheless, challenge deeply rooted assumptions about the very nature of politics - and suggest ways to make an end run around the impasses inflicted upon us by our (frequently unquestioned) basic assumptions in this most contested of areas. Diametrically opposed to the utopian, such works are deeply rooted in the beliefs/practices of specific societies that have worked - and that have much to teach us - should we be bothered to listen...

List of Rules for Workable CPR Governance

1. Clearly defined boundaries. Individuals or households who have rights to withdraw reource units from the CPR must be clearly defined, as must the boundaries of the CPR itself.

2. Congruence between appropriation and provision rules and local conditions. Appropriation rules restricting time, place, technology, and/or quantity of resource units are related to local conditions and to provision rules requiring labor, material, and/or money.

3. Collective-choice arrangements. Most individuals affected by the operational rules can participate in modifying the operational rules.

4. Monitoring. Monitors, who actively audit CPR conditions and appropriator behavoir, are accountable to the appropriators or are the appropriators.

5. Graduated sanctions. Appropriators who violate operational rules are likely to be assessed graduated sanctions (depending on the seriousness and context of the offense) by other appropriators, by officials accountable to these appropriators, or by both.

6. Conflict-resolution mechanisms. Appropriators and their officials have rapid access to low-cost arenas to resolve conflicts among appropriators or between appropriators and officials.

7. Minimal recognition of the right to organize. The rights of appropriators to devise their own institutions are not challenged by external governmental authorities.

For CPRs that are parts of larger systems.

8. Nested enterprises. Appropriation, provision, monitoring, enforcement, conflict resolution, and governance activities are organized in multiple layers of nested enterprises.
(Ostrom, p.90)

John Henry Calvinist