7 thoughts on “Elinor Ostrom and the spontaneous evolution of social institutions”

  1. Posted 27/04/2012 at 04:52 | Permalink

    I never have got the fuss made over this work. Governments are always imposed, sometimes by force of a minority, sometimes by force of a (occasionally overwhelming) majority. Among the latter variety, the majority may elect legislators, or, if the games to be coordinated are simple enough, there may be a committee of the whole that agrees on rules. Either way, one ends up with is governance. Not by THE government, but by A government.

    The local, “voluntary” solutions that Ostrom describes are just limited purpose governments. There is nothing special about them other than that their powers are not plenary. What if all but one farmer agrees that overgrazing is bad? Does he not feel obliged go along to get along? Is avoiding ostracism any different from avoiding jail?

    Coordination is coordination. It ALWAYS involves a loss of autonomy. Libertarians never seem to get tht one can voluntarily, in the exercise of one’s LIBERTY, suspend a bit of one’s AUTONOMY in exchange for the benefits of an unspoiled commons. The result, however you style it, is government. Thus, there is no “spontaneous evolution of social institutions and orders independent of government or political power.” Such spontaneous evolution IS government and political power. The distinction is wholly arbitrary.

  2. Posted 27/04/2012 at 14:29 | Permalink

    Remarkl: I probably shouldn’t comment before thinking this through a bit more, but I believe the difference is unanimous consent – coordinated with private property rights – versus majority rule (government). If that one farmer believes overgrazing is good, he is free to overgraze his own property, but not the “common” contract protected property. His folly (or, if his guess is right, his success) will be punished or rewarded through economic results.

  3. Posted 27/04/2012 at 15:30 | Permalink

    “Is avoiding ostracism any different from avoiding jail?”

    Is refraining from social or economic relations with someone any different from locking him or her in a cage?


  4. Posted 27/04/2012 at 16:18 | Permalink


    The conceptual insight Ostrom provides misses you because you hold a poor and incomplete definition of government.

    Governing is not the same as government.
    All governments govern.
    All governing does not create a government.

    Government -in all cases- depends on violence to enforce compliance to its edicts – no exceptions.

    Ostrom articulates different set of pathways of compliance -sans violence.

  5. Posted 28/04/2012 at 18:42 | Permalink

    Black flag

    Ostrom is perfectly fine with the idea of ENFORCEABLE contracts, I.e., contracts backed by the state’s monopoly on the legitimate use of force. She is not about nonviolence; she is about users agreeing on the rules instead of an external manager doing so. Enforcement is an entirely separate matter. And she makes clear that her quarrel is with those who believe that Leviathan is always the only solution to coordination problems, when, in fact, SOMETIMES, but not always, users can developer their own rules, which may then require the coercive power of government to implement.

  6. Posted 29/04/2012 at 16:07 | Permalink


    All contracts are enforceable without the State except the first one. The rest become wholly enforceable based on what others witness are the non-violent consequences metered out to the contract breaker.

    She is non-violent, that is, she does not suggest there is a requirement to INITIATE violence so to enforce contracts – there is a difference between starting a fight and defending one’s self.

    One can make rules without government, and without requiring a monopoly on force. The theory that to reduce violence and maintain social order one must concentrate the initiation of violence to a small group who then can initiate such violence on its whim is self-evidently a contradiction if one’s goal is to reduce violence and improve social order!

    It may be true that the State at times makes rules and uses its violence to enforce them.

    It does not make it true, however, that it is the only means of making and enforcing rules.

  7. Posted 29/04/2012 at 21:25 | Permalink

    Luther –

    I don’t see anything about unanimity in Ostrom. But I’ve only read part of “Governing the Commons.” She has become a darling of the wacko right, when she appears to be an apolitical scholar who has tried to understand the conditions – according to her, not always present – when users of a commons can create the rules – whether or not they also create the enforcement mechanisms – whereby the commons will be shared. She rejects the simplistic notion that all coordination of prisoners’ dilemma games must be external to the participants, but she does not reject the existence of such games, nor does she advocate a private solution to ALL such games, or lump rule-making and enforcement together as having to be provided by the same agent.

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