Elinor Ostrom

I only just found out that Elinor Ostrom died last week. She is the only woman to win a Nobel Prize in economics (although Joan Robinson probably should have got one) and the magnitude of that achievement is magnified by the fact that she didn’t train as an economist! If you’re not familiar with her life then have a read of her obituary over at the NYT.

As I was taught it, her work deals with the conditions under which communities will be able to avoid a tragedy of the commons in managing common resources. Tyler Cowen said of it:

Elinor Ostrom may arguable be considered the mother of field work in development economics. She has worked closely investigating water associations in Los Angeles, police departments in Indiana, and irrigation systems in Nepal. In each of these cases her work has explored how between the atomized individual and the heavy-hand of government there is a range of voluntary, collective associations that over time can evolve efficient and equitable rules for the use of common resources.

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… 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.

2 replies
  1. Paul Walker
    Paul Walker says:

    “although Joan Robinson probably should have got one”

    I have argued that in the past but as I have had to look more into the development of the whole imperfect competition thing I’m not so sure. Mark Blaug point it this way: “Despite superficial similarities between the two books [Robinson’s and Chamberlin’s], it is now perfectly obvious that Chamberlin was the true revolutionary.”

    • jamesz
      jamesz says:

      I’ve heard that but I’m not really convinced. First, she did more that monopolistic competition, otherwise she’d probably not be famous enough to warrant a Nobel. Secondly, isn’t it like a Newton/Leibniz argument?

      I guess you could uncontroversially say that Ostrom wasn’t the first woman to make a notable contribution to the field of economics. Anyway, this will start to fade as an issue when Duflo and her ilk start picking up Nobels. That will probably make everyone happy 🙂


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