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Profile of Elinor Ostrom (1933-2012)

By Troy Vettese | 2024



From the 1970s to the 2000s, Ostrom wrote the following major texts:


  1. 1971. “Public Choice: A Different Approach to the Study of Public Administration.” Public Administration Review 31 (2): 203–16. (Coauthored with Vincent Ostrom).

  2. 1986. “An Agenda for the Study of Institutions.” Public Choice 48 (1): 3–25.

  3. 1990. Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

  4. 2007. “A Diagnostic Approach for Going Beyond Panaceas.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 104 (39): 15181–15187.

  5. 2009a. A Polycentric Approach for Coping with Climate Change. Washington DC: World Bank.

  6. 2010. “Beyond Markets and States: Polycentric Governance of Complex Economic Systems.” American Economic Review 100 (3): 641–72.


Elinor Ostrom (née Awan), was a neoliberal political scientist best known for her scholarship on the political economy of “common-pool resources” (i.e., public goods that are “subtractable” like irrigation). In 2009, she and economist Oliver Williamson shared the Bank of Sweden Prize, making her the first of only two women to have received this honor (this prize is also known as the economics “Nobel”, see Offer and Söderberg 2016). Her reputation rests on her magnum opus, Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action (1990), which forcefully refuted the inevitability of what Garrett Hardin called the “tragedy of the commons”. Hardin used the parable of pastoralists selfishly over-exploiting a shared pasture to prove his general point that “freedom in a commons brings ruin to all”, regardless whether the commons is public parking or the “freedom to breed” (Hardin 1968, 1244, 1246). E. Ostrom[1] showed through case studies and game theory that commons often endure for centuries because its users develop arrangements to manage a shared resource. Her critique of Hardin contributed to the environmentalist movement’s ideological shift from neo-Malthusianism in the 1960s towards neoliberal co-optation by the 1990s, as well as the dominance of commons-based approaches in international development (Bromley and Cernea 1989), and radical political theory (Linebaugh 2010).


Neoliberalism’s eventual hegemony within the environmental movement was far from obvious during the “Malthusian Moment” (Robertson 2012) half a century ago. For a time it was common sense that “overpopulation” was the main cause of the environmental crisis following the publication of influential neo-Malthusian tracts including Paul and Anne Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb (1968) and Donella Meadows’ The Limits to Growth (1972). Ehrlich became a fixture of US talk shows, while Meadows’ short treatise shaped the agenda of the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm in 1972 (Huf, Sluga, and Selchow 2022, 558). Contemporary demographic and economic changes appeared to confirm the Malthusian worldview: the global population increased from three to four billion in a mere fourteen years (1960–1974), while the 1973 and 1979 oil crises seemed to signal that non-renewable resources were becoming increasingly scarce. The neo-Malthusians’ demands for controlling both population and economic growth found a receptive audience in the broader public and among some mainstream economists (Meade 1973, Madden 1974).


The supine defense offered by neoclassical economists against the neo-Malthusian invasion of their discipline spurred the still marginal neoliberal movement to action. Neoliberals did not see the market merely as a site of exchange (as neoclassical economists did), but rather as a site of knowledge production superior to government bureaus or even science itself (Mirowski 2013, 267). Although Friedrich Hayek (1975) pointedly attacked The Limits to Growthin his Bank of Sweden Prize lecture, he and other prominent neoliberals failed to articulate a compelling critique of neo-Malthusianism at the time. E. Ostrom’s attack on the neo-Malthusian fable of the tragedy of the commons not only reduced the influence of the environmentalist movement’s apocalyptic wing, but also garnered her admirers from across the political spectrum. Few on the left, however, have inquired into the conservative foundations of her thought.

 

Early Life (1930s to 1960s)

Although E. Ostrom would eventually join the elitist “neoliberal thought collective” (Plehwe 2009, 4), her own social origins were modest. She was born during the Great Depression to a working-class family who fell on hard times after her father lost his job as a Hollywood set designer. Her family lived on the periphery of the posh Beverly Hills neighborhood, but still within the local school’s catchment area. While E. Ostrom was bullied because of her Jewish and proletarian background, the excellent education she received allowed her to become the first in her family to attend university (Harford 2013). At the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), she met her first husband Charles Scott and the two moved to Massachusetts so he could study law at Harvard University. E. Ostrom found it difficult to find satisfying work, as few firms at the time offered non-secretarial positions to women (Ostrom E. 2009b). When her husband opposed her decision to enroll in a PhD program she sought a divorce. She returned to UCLA, but could not continue studying economics because sexist professors had dissuaded her from taking the requisite courses in mathematics during her undergraduate education (Ostrom E. 2009b). She applied instead to political science, becoming one of four women in a cohort of forty. The fact that any women studied at all that year was thanks to E. Ostrom, who chastised the faculty for not accepting female graduate students for decades (Harford 2013).


As a consequence of this disciplinary shift, she met her mentor and second husband Vincent Ostrom. At the time, E. Ostrom was a twenty-six year old graduate student and V. Ostrom was forty and a tenured professor. She was assigned to his project on California water policy, which led to her dissertation “Public Entrepreneurship: A Case Study in Water Basin Management” (1965). V. Ostrom was an important neoliberal influence on E. Ostrom at the time, though she also cited the works of other leading Hayekians such as Frank Knight, James Buchanan, and Ronald Coase. As she once told an interviewer decades later, “there is no way you can write about my work without paying attention to the work of Vincent” (Schafter and Toonen 2010, 193). V. Ostrom himself had written his dissertation on California water policy in 1950, but the seed for his concept of “polycentricity” was sown in the 1940s when he studied animal husbandry in Wyoming. Ranchers herded cattle from private to public land depending on the season, which led him to “conceptualize common property in the domain between private and public ownership as part of the system of governing” (quoted in Schacter and Toonen 2010, 195). The collapse of any sharp binary between public and private property became a key insight animating both Ostroms’ oeuvres.

The concept of polycentricity was first articulated by V. Ostrom in “The Organization of Government in Metropolitan Areas” (1961), which he co-authored with Charles Tiebout and Robert Warren. They argued for seeing cities as “polycentric political systems” composed of overlapping and competing bureaus, firms, and governments. They made the quintessential neoliberal argument that a centralized government (“gargantua”) would become a “victim of the complexity of its own hierarchical or bureaucratic structure” (837), a problem that could be overcome by using market-like arrangements to produce information. By referring to policing and road maintenance as “industries” rather than public services, Vincent and his co-authors stressed their potential to be governed by market logic, especially if the “provision” and “production” of public goods were separated (834). While the government would provision such goods through taxation, their actual production could be carried out by other entities—a relationship not unlike a car company and its independent suppliers (832). The paragon of polycentric governance was Lakewood, a neighborhood in Los Angeles which incorporated independently in 1954 rather than amalgamating with nearby Long Beach. The Lakewood government contracted with Los Angeles County, other municipalities, and private firms to provision police patrols, road repair, and other public industries (839). Outsourcing state functions allowed Lakewood’s residents to pay only a twentieth the property taxes of their neighbors (Conner 2012, 81).


While the Ostroms adopted different approaches, polycentricity was their shared intellectual framework. As a political theorist, V. Ostrom drew on Alexis de Tocqueville and the authors of The Federalist Papers to compose his treatise, The Political Theory of a Compound Republic (1971). E. Ostrom, who remained close to her roots in economics, studied similar problems to Vincent but used case studies and game theory instead. That Elinor would eventually become the more influential of the pair was hardly obvious at the outset of her career. In 1965, two years after their marriage and shortly after E. Ostrom finished her PhD, the two of them moved to Bloomington so V. Ostrom could take up a professorship at Indiana University (IU). E. Ostrom, by contrast, got by with adjunct work and teaching early morning survey courses (Ostrom E. 2009b). Their careers became ever more enmeshed after they began their influential Workshop on Political Theory & Policy Analysis in 1973, a veritable institution at IU where they trained dozens of graduate students in polycentricity over the next thirty-nine years.

 

Early Years of the Bloomington School (1970s)

By the early 1970s, E. Ostrom had tired of water policy and cast about for a new topic (Toonen 2010, 196). She chose police departments, which in many ways would serve as a foundation for her later work on the commons. She argued against the assumption that a single centralized police department necessarily served a municipality better than several departments of varying sizes. E. Ostrom’s arguments were typically polycentric, as she believed many smaller police departments could more efficiently transmit information through market-like mechanisms, such as out-sourcing forensic laboratory work or neighborhood patrols (Ostrom E. 1972, 484, 490, Ostrom E. 1982, 22). She adopted different techniques to make this argument, such as measuring police “output” through various shadow prices and comparative case studies of Indianapolis, Grand Rapids, Nashville, and Chicago (Ostrom E., Parks, and Whitaker 1973, Ostrom E. 1973a).


E. Ostrom’s studies on the police were an oblique defense of “white flight”, the mid-century phenomenon whereby millions of white Americans left troubled cities for the suburbs. She did not use the term itself, but alluded to the “urban problem” (1972, 475) or “the exodus of middle-class residents from central cities” (1973b, 88), yet her polycentric arguments justified geographical segregation by race and class much like V. Ostrom’s earlier work on Lakewood. After all, the small police departments prized by E. Ostrom were often located in wealthy white enclaves (Ostrom E., Parks, and Whitaker 1973, 424). Yet, polycentric policing was not just a proxy in the broader debate over amalgamating municipal governments to address the costs of white flight (Hawley and Zimmer 1970), but actually contributed to the problem. Entrepreneurial police departments could survey the borders of the polycentric municipal mosaic to protect the white middle class from the deteriorating inner city they had abandoned. Notably, Lakewood was the first municipality to have permanent helicopter patrols when it began its “Sky Knight” program in 1966 (Guthrie 1968, 157–63).

The Ostroms belonged to the “Public Choice” school of neoliberalism, whose members were often outspoken critics of using state power to remedy racial segregation. A year after James Buchanan and Gordon Tullock published the seminal neoliberal treatise, The Calculus of Consent (1962), the conservative critics of mid-century liberalism met at a conference in Charlottesville to discuss what V. Ostrom called the “no-name” subjects in public administration. The conference attendees christened their object of study “public choice”, an approach whereby citizens and civil servants could be analyzed using rational choice theory. Buchanan contributed to this new field by arguing for private religious schools to be supported by public vouchers, which would allow white families to flee the recently desegregated public education system (Maclean 2017). While V. Ostrom opposed “bussing” (Ostrom V. and Allen 2007, 216–19), E. Ostrom argued that racial, religious, and class “homogeneity” (1973b, 98) produced more stable communities. To her credit, E. Ostrom also criticized police brutality against black people, but her solution was more polycentricity in the form of small police departments (Ostrom E. and Whitaker 1974) rather than large-scale government intervention to redistribute wealth and jobs. Notably,  both V. Ostrom (1967–1969) and E. Ostrom (1982–1984) served as president of the Public Choice Society.


By the late 1970s, white flight had transformed from a political problem into an economic one, as municipal tax revenues plummeted. The Ostroms (1978) lambasted New York City’s effort to tax wealthy white suburbanites because they feared it would encourage other cash-strapped cities like Detroit to take similar action. While the Ostroms admitted that a polycentric system allowed the wealthy to escape to “jurisdictions that operate primarily as tax shelters” (29), they maintained that municipal amalgamation was a mistake. If a polycentric political system forced municipalities to compete for footloose residents by keeping taxes low, then Elinor’s concept of “coproduction” offered another means of starving the state. Contemporary scholars tend to use “coproduction” as a politically neutral or even progressive term (Bell and Pahl 2018), overlooking the concept’s conservative origins. Elinor and Vincent used the term coproduction for the first time in “Public Economy Organization and Service Delivery”, in which they defined the term as “inputs and activities of citizens that affect the quality of services delivered” (1977, 9). “Home owners’ improvement associations, housing cooperatives, and condominiums” could act as coproducers of “police protection, recreation services, [and] public works” (13). The concept did not emerge in a vacuum, but rather was a conservative response to New York’s bankruptcy in 1975. Instead of trying to capture lost tax revenues by amalgamating New York with its wealthy suburbs, the Ostroms preferred disguising austerity as “coproduction”.

 

Studying the Commons (1980s to 2000s)

1977 was a significant year in E. Ostrom’s career, for she not only coined the concept of coproduction, but also confronted Hardin over his concept of the “tragedy of the commons” for the first time. Both Ostroms contributed essays to Managing the Commons (1977), a collection edited by Hardin and John Baden (director of the Property and Environment Research Center). In her chapter, “Collective Action and the Tragedy of the Commons,” E. Ostrom argued that Hardin had overlooked how “the tragedy of the commons has at times been avoided by collective solutions to common pool problems” (174). As an example, she drew upon her doctoral research on California’s West Basin to show how water-users devised a system of courts and commodified rights to manage scarcity. Instead of focusing on “the nation-state and on the need for a monopoly of coercive force,” she advocated studying “the inventiveness of those who directly face common pool problems” (179).

In subsequent years, E. Ostrom shifted her focus from police departments as a specific example of polycentricity to theorizing more generally about the commons. In 1981, she learned German to study game theory at the University of Bielefeld with economist Reinhard Selten (who would share the Bank of Sweden Prize with John Nash and John Harsanyi in 1994). Four years later, her work took a cosmopolitan turn after she was exposed to case studies of successful commons from across the world at the first conference of the National Research Council Committee on Common Property in Annapolis. Back at the IU workshop, she reflected on how “our general sense at the Annapolis conference was that groups have devised customs and rules to limit and regulate the use of common-pool resources more frequently than one would predict from current social science theories of collective action” (1985, 1). She would go on to argue that “empirical” ethnographic and historical research refuted Hardin’s thought experiment (24). It was at the Annapolis conference that E. Ostrom and her peers came up with a definition for “common-pool resources” as “natural or man-made facilities which produce flows of separable use-units per unit of time [...] where physical exclusion from the resource system is costly to achieve” (1985, 27). One could already discern the arguments that would structure Governing the Commons, yet it would take another five years for her to finish that book.


E. Ostrom began working on the project that would become Governing the Commons after fellow neoliberal Douglass North heard her lecture in 1985 at the University of Washington and encouraged her to contribute to a book series he edited with James Alt. Alt thought that the book could be based on the set of lectures E. Ostrom was going to give at Harvard University the following year. This modest undertaking, however, kept expanding in scope. In 1987, she rejoined Selten in Germany, where she observed his efforts to take game theory from economics and apply it to biology and sociology (Ostrom E. 2010, 15). Back in Bloomington she worked with a small army of graduate students to compile a massive database of studies on common-pool resources. Joining meta-analyses of case studies with game theory would become her intellectual trademark.

In Governing the Commons, E. Ostrom counterposed Hardin’s “Leviathan” that used “coercive force” to maintain order in a “crowded world” (Ostrom E. 1990, 9) with her own polycentric solutions. By using game theory to derive abstract principles from specific case studies, she discussed design principles that ensured the durability of commons with little or no interference of the state. Like V. Ostrom’s Lakewood or her own work on police departments, the examples in Governing the Commons blurred the distinction between private and public entities because “most of the institutional arrangements used in the success stories were rich mixtures of public and private instrumentalities” (1990, 182). The book even included a chapter on California water management, harkening back to her intellectual development three decades earlier. The success of Governing the Commons, especially in developmental and environmental studies, was part of the general shift of the green movement from neo-Malthusianism to neoliberalism in the late twentieth century. E. Ostrom’s fight against Hardin in many ways mirrored the rivalry between fellow neoliberal Julian Simon and Paul Ehrlich of Population Bomb fame (Sabin 2013). With its neo-Malthusian backbone broken, the environmental movement in the 1990s was easily swayed by the strengthening neoliberal intellectual current.

E. Ostrom’s career enjoyed a significant bump after the publication of Governing the Commons. She became the first president (1990) of the group that emerged from the Annapolis conference (the International Association for the Study of Common Property), fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (1991), president of the American Political Science Association (1996–97), and a consultant for the World Bank for many years. In 2002, she turned down a job offer from Harvard in order to stay in Bloomington because she could not part with the workshop she and Vincent had shepherded for decades. The autumn and winter of her career proved particularly productive, as she authored and co-authored numerous books, including Rules, Games and Common-Pool Resources (with Gardner 1994), Trust and Reciprocity (with Walker 2003), and Understanding Institutional Diversity (2005).


That E. Ostrom is popular amongst her fellow neoliberals is not surprising given their rancor towards the neo-Malthusians, but her warm reception by the left, ecological economists (Raworth 2017), and degrowthers (Schmelzer, Vetter, and Vansintjan 2022) is harder to explain. Perhaps they are content to cite a refutation of Hardin or a thorough theorization of the commons, but they fail to delve deeply enough into Elinor’s scholarship to uncover its conservative foundations. Almost all the sustained engagements with her thought have been written by authors of the right, not left (Aligica and Boettke 2009, Tarko 2016, Herzberg, Boettke, and Aligica 2019; for a rare exception see Locher 2018). E. Ostrom was correct that many commons are more ecologically stable than neo-Malthusians assumed, but she neglected how commons are often destabilized by the market she idealized. After all, the true tragedy of the commons was not peasant misuse but the enclosure of land by capitalist landlords in early-modern England (Wood 2002, 52–60). E. Ostrom believed that it would be difficult to create commons de novo, and thus marketized polycentric governance and austere coproduction were the best substitutes (1990, 14, 136). Whatever the reasons for Elinor’s unwarranted progressive reputation, it likely explains why she won the Bank of Sweden Prize in the aftermath of the financial crisis of 2008. As a historian studying the Bank of Sweden Prize speculated, “the Ostrom prize was out of character for the Nobel Committee and was probably a panic reaction” (Johnson 2022, 69). The award was given none too soon, as E. Ostrom died in 2012, with her husband following just seventeen days later.

At the moment of her death, both neoliberalism and environmentalism seemed to be entering a new historical era, with the former becoming more conciliatory to a burgeoning fascist movement that in some ways is Hardin’s heir (Malm and the Zetkin Collective 2021), while the greens have been slowly rediscovering their radical roots with the rise of groups like Ende Gelände and Extinction Rebellion. The limitations of E. Ostrom’s framework are most easily apparent in the context of large, world-spanning problems like climate change. As a consultant for the World Bank, she advised against government intervention to deal with global warming, and instead offered the microscopic solutions of carpooling and nudges to reduce energy consumption (2009a, 15, 38). The rich, after all, might be able to vote with their feet in a warming world, just as they did during the urban crisis of mid-century America. Perhaps the true tragedy of the commons has been the delusion that E. Ostrom’s neoliberalism with a human face ever offered a way forward. The suburban bourgeoisie who eviscerated mid-century US cities now bear much responsibility for destroying the global atmospheric commons. Rather than embrace the myth of polycentricity, what is needed is a radical and egalitarian politics capable of caging this footloose class—so it can be taxed, tamed, and one day abolished.



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Ostrom, Elinor. 1986. “An Agenda for the Study of Institutions.” Public Choice 48 (1): 3–25.

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Ostrom, Vincent and Elinor Ostrom. 1971. “Public Choice: A Different Approach to the Study of

Public Administration.” Public Administration Review 31 (2): 203–16.

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Boettke, Peter, Liya Palagashvili, and Jayme Lemke. 2013. “Riding in Cars with Boys: Elinor

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Dietz, Thomas, Elinor Ostrom, and Paul C. Stern. 2003. “The Struggle to Govern the

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Press.

Mirowski, Philip and Dieter Plehwe. 2009. The Road from Mont Pèlerin: The Making of the

Neoliberal Thought Collective. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Ostrom, Elinor. 1972. “Metropolitan Reform: Propositions Derived from Two Traditions.” Social

Science Quarterly 53 (3): 474–93.

Ostrom, Elinor. 1996. “Crossing the Great Divide: Coproduction, Synergy, and Development.”

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Ostrom, Elinor. 1998. “A Behavioral Approach to the Rational Choice Theory of Collective

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National Academy of Sciences 104 (39): 15181–15187.

Ostrom, Elinor. 2009. “A general Framework for Analyzing Sustainability of Social-Ecological

Systems.” Science 325 (5939): 419–422.

Ostrom, Elinor. 2010. “Beyond Markets and States: Polycentric Governance of Complex

Economic Systems.” American Economic Review 100 (3): 641–72.

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Policansky. 1999. “Revisiting the Commons: Local Lessons, Global Challenges.” Science 284 (5412): 278–82.

Ostrom, Elinor, Christina Chang, Mark Pennington, and Vlad Tarko. 2012. The Future of the

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Wall, Derek. 2017. Elinor Ostrom's Rules for Radicals. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.


[1] Initials are used to distinguish between Elinor Ostrom and her husband Vincent.


Reference anything from this site as:

Vettese, Troy (2024) 'International Economic Thinkers-Profile: Elinor Ostrum', ECOINT IET Profile #7, available at: https://www.ecoint.org/post/profile-of-elinor-ostrom-1933-2012

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