October 12, 2009


A Political Scientist Who Does Great Economics: In praise of Elinor Ostrom (Thomas C. Schelling, 10.12.09, Forbes)

On the selection of Elinor Ostrom for the Frank E. Seidman Distinguished Award in Political Economy in 1997, I was invited to the award ceremony to say a few words. A colleague asked me who the recipient was, and I said "Elinor Ostrom."

His response was so enthusiastic that I asked how he knew about her. He said he owned a house on a parcel on a lake, along with 18 others, and the lake had become so polluted that they all had to stop using fertilizer and get rid of any horses or chickens near the lake water. They had no governing organization to compel cooperation, but inspired by Ostrom's work they negotiated among themselves to adopt some rules. I asked whether everybody complied with the rules. He said "all but one, but we're still talking."

Ostrom pioneered the study of informal, non-governmental institutions that people invent to ration their use of the "commons," even in asymmetrical situations like upstream versus downstream occupants of a river bank. What is known as the "free rider" (non-cooperator) problem has found a number of solutions, voluntarily adopted, in a variety of cultures and environments. Elinor Ostrom "discovered" this subject and revealed it to us with examples ranging from the simple to the sophisticated. The Nobel prizes are intended to honor not lifetime achievement but specific discoveries or inventions. Elinor Ostrom is a perfect example.

Posted by Orrin Judd at October 12, 2009 5:20 PM
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