Elinor Ostrom, refuter of neoliberal legends

“Elinor Ostrom has challenged the conventional wisdom that common property is always poorly managed and should be either regulated by a centralized authority or privatized. Contrary to this vision, and based on numerous studies on ditches, forests, fisheries, dairy farms, lakes, woods, pastures, Ostrom concludes that the results tend to be, usually, better than those predicted by the standard theories on the matter. It shows that users frequently develop sophisticated decision-making and rule-enforcement mechanisms aimed at resolving conflicts of interest.”

The above paragraph is part of the rationale for the prize awarded by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences to Elinor Ostrom in 2009, for “her analysis of economic governance, especially shared resources.” Ostrom was the first woman to earn this recognition. And the only one of hers until 2019, when Esther Duflo obtained it for her work on poverty.

It is worth clarifying that the Nobel Prize in Economics was created in 1968 by the Bank of Sweden to commemorate the third centenary of its creation. And despite the fact that it is managed and delivered by the Swedish Academy, along with the awards given by the Nobel Foundation, technically it is not a Nobel Prize because it was not among those that Alfred Nobel established in his will. On the other hand, it is not paid by the Nobel Foundation but by the Bank of Sweden. That is one of the reasons why it received quite a few criticisms throughout its half-century of history, even from the heir of Mr. Alfred, and there are even those who claim that “the Nobel Prize in Economics does not exist.”

There are other more interesting questions: that its creation sought to assimilate economics with the exact sciences, as if that discipline were, ignoring deep controversies about the epistemic status of economics. Or also the indication of the marked ideological bias that is evident in the list of awardees: most belong to neoliberal or orthodox currents.

But whether due to a turn of the times, for technical reasons or due to the exceptional merit of Elinor Ostrom, it is precisely because of all of the above that her award is so unique. Mario Bunge, with her proverbial brutal honesty, defined it, when he learned that she had been awarded, saying: “This time they were right. It’s about time they gave it to a progressive socio-economist, instead of giving it to some caveman ideologue, as they have become accustomed to doing.

“Tragedy” of the shared. For centuries (Hobbes inaugurated the course), the statements of economic liberalism are based on a pessimistic view of the human species. In that version we are hopelessly selfish, lacking in empathy, and prone to competition, never cooperation. Even attempts have been made to use Darwin in favor of these ideas, ignoring his own denial of such use. He highlighted it in his work The Origin of Man, from 1871. There he gave examples of the capacity for empathy, compassion and support between animals of different species, and of course in the human species (although not with the emphasis or the clarity with which it was postulated by Pyotr Kropotkin, whom today’s evolutionary biology credits for his insightful observations on mutual aid and cooperation as pillars of survival). Darwin said, as if to leave no doubt: “In this way there is no need to place in the vile principle of selfishness the foundations of what is most noble in our nature.”

In 1968, an article titled “The Tragedy of the Commons” was published. [bienes] Common”) by Garrett Hardin. That text is often presented as the definitive “demonstration” of an axiom of liberal and orthodox economists’ thought: the idea that the common management of property ends in the abuse, neglect or destruction of those common resources.

Hardin’s thesis, truly tragic in its consequences, is that the community as such is incapable of reaching rational agreements on the use of common resources or, if it does, is incapable of fulfilling them. Therefore, the only solution is for there to be an agent outside the community that manages, regulates or guarantees certain controls. In practice, this management falls to the state power or to private actors motivated by their own interests or –as is more often the case– in a mix: the ownership of common goods is transferred to individuals whose rights are safeguarded by the State.

But with her work, Elinor Ostrom shows, with many historical examples, that this is false: that self-managed collective property is possible and capable of generating beneficial results for all. Common property, she tells us, can be quite successfully managed by user associations and cooperatives.

All Elinor’s work means a resounding lie to that powerful orthodox myth, apparently invincible. And it is significant that in an androcentric world, and in a discipline dominated by men, a woman has been the author of that refutation.

Without naivety. When Elinor Ostrom was asked what she worked for, she explained that “communities can be incredibly more effective at managing than private business or the state.” And she resorted to simple examples so that her concerns as a researcher could be understood: “For example, we have studied hundreds of irrigation systems. And we find that farmer-managed irrigation systems are more efficient in terms of delivering water to every corner and have higher productivity and lower costs than the fabulous irrigation systems built with the help of the World Bank and other agencies. multilateral”.

He pointed out in passing: “But this is not universal, so we can’t be so naive as to think ‘let’s just hand things over to the people, who will always organize themselves’. No, it’s not like that. There are many scenarios that discourage self-organization”. And from that starting point she anticipated her most important ambition as a social scientist: “To identify a good handful of variables that are associated with self-organization so that it is efficient”, that is: “the conditions under which people can self-organize ”.

As a result of that research, Ostrom, in his most important work, entitled Governing the Commons: the Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action (edited in 1990), studied multiple cases that show how to collectively manage and dispose of scarce resources. There he lists eight “design principles” of stable common resource management:

1- Clearly defined limits (effective exclusion of third parties not involved).

2- Rules for the use and enjoyment of common resources adapted to local conditions.

3- Collective agreements that allow users to participate in decision-making processes.

4- Effective control, by controllers who are part of or to whom the community can hold accountable.

5- Progressive scale of sanctions for users who transgress the rules of the community.

6- Cheap and easily accessible conflict resolution mechanisms.

7- Self-management of the community recognized by the authorities of superior instances.

8- In the case of large common resources, organization at various levels, with small local communities at the base level.

His latest works emphasized the interaction between human beings and ecological systems, always with the intention of identifying the elements that enable self-management of communities in the face of sustainable socio-ecological relationships.

Bunge and Ostrom. In his Political Philosophy. Solidarity, Cooperation and Comprehensive Democracy (2009), Mario Bunge had resorted to Elinor Ostrom in numerous passages to discuss the lack of evidence of the main statements of traditional economists, which – the eminent philosopher maintains – have been repeating for three centuries dogmas that are not They have no scientific basis. “These theorists claim to know, without any empirical research, that human beings are selfish by nature, in the same way that aerodynamics experts ‘knew’ that aircraft could not fly,” Bunge quipped. And instead he cited Elinor’s studies, which showed the numerous examples of cooperative, self-managed and sustainable management that the scholar had revealed in her research.

The same year that Bunge published that book, the news of the Nobel arrived. When he learned that Elinor had been awarded, in addition to celebrating, Mario Bunge explained why it was a success: “Because this issue has been ignored by almost all political economists, not only the old acquaintances of the right, but also the Marxists, always enemies of cooperatives. Indeed, almost all economists recognize only two property regimes: private and state. They are not interested in the tertium quid, self-managed collective property, which escapes both the clutches of big capital and that of the authoritarian state”.

“The net result is that what matters to preserve an asset is not ownership but management,” says Bunge. “So much so, that a poorly managed private company does not even benefit its owners. Contemporary experimental economics and social psychology give us data to explain why Elinor Ostrom is right and, by the same token, why Garrett Hardin was wrong. Indeed, these sciences have shown that only a minority always seeks to maximize their expected utilities, regardless of whether they harm others. Most human beings are considerate and cooperative.”

“In short, Professor Ostrom: congratulations on helping to bring out the angelic side of the human beast, and on bringing down the political philosophy and economics that take for granted that we are all scavengers and scavengers. It was time for the Nobel Prize to be won by those who believe that economics and politics can be beneficial to the majority if they replace the pessimism of Hobbes with the optimism of Rousseau, and the incompetence of the financial adviser with the competence of the grocer from the other block. ”.

Gender and trust in humanity. How much did the gender issue influence the perspective and the issues that interested the Nobel Prize? It is difficult to determine, but as she herself pointed out: “When I considered the possibility of enrolling in the university, they discouraged me telling me that I would never be able to go beyond teaching in some provincial university technical school. How things have changed!”. She also pointed out that she had attended Economics classes “in which she was the only woman in the class, but this has been slowly changing, and I think there is a growing respect for women, that we can make really important contributions. And I would like to believe that this recognition will help in this direction,” she said in an interview shortly after receiving the Nobel Prize.

His confidence in the self-management capacity of human groups was neither naive nor unlimited. “This is what I’ve been working on all my life,” she exclaimed. “Humans have great abilities, but we have bought into the idea that bosses have genetic abilities that the rest of us lack. I hope that my work will serve to change that idea a little.”

Elinor was Professor of Political Science at Bentley University, and co-director of the Workshop in Political Theory and Policy Analysis at Indiana University, Bloomington, United States. She was also the founding director of the Center for Institutional Diversity Studies at Arizona State University. In August of this year she would have turned 89. She died on June 12, 2012, at the age of 78, a victim of cancer. “Indiana University lost an irreplaceable and magnificent treasure,” said the president of that institution at the time. In truth, egalitarian thought also lost a towering exponent of the best of science in combination with the highest ideals of humanity.

Recovering the contribution of Elinor, a citizen of the world whose work sustains the possibility of a better society, is the best way to honor her. In her words: “It is important that communities build their own future with direct actions on their common goods.”

*Journalist. Doctorate in Philosophy at UNSAM.

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