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Libertarian women’s history month: Elinor Ostrom

1 Apr

Elinor Ostrom (August 7, 1933 – June 12, 2012)  the first woman to win the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences (shared with Oliver E. Williamson), is also one of the most iconoclastic thinkers to win it.  To date, she remains the only woman to win The Prize in Economics.

Ostrom lived in BloomingtonIndiana, and served on the faculty of both Indiana University and Arizona State University. She held the rank of Distinguished Professor at Indiana University and was the Arthur F. Bentley Professor of Political Science and Co-Director of the Workshop in Political Theory and Policy Analysis at Indiana University, as well as Research Professor and the Founding Director of the Center for the Study of Institutional Diversity at Arizona State University in Tempe. She was a lead researcher for the Sustainable Agriculture and Natural Resource Management Collaborative Research Support Program (SANREM CRSP), managed by Virginia Tech and funded by USAID. Beginning in 2008, she and her husband Vincent Ostrom advised the journal Transnational Corporations Review.
Ostrom was born Elinor Claire Awan in Los AngelesCalifornia, as the only child of Leah (born Hopkins) and Adrian Awan. Her father was Jewish, while her mother was Protestant. She attended a Protestant church and often spent weekends staying with her aunt, one of her father’s sisters, who kept a kosher home. Her parents were poor.
Ostrom graduated from Beverly Hills High School in 1951 and then received a B.A. (with honors) in political science atUCLA in 1954. She was awarded an M.A. in 1962 and a PhD in 1965 in political science, both at UCLA.  She married political scientist Vincent Ostrom in 1963.
In 1973, Ostrom and her husband founded the Workshop in Political Theory and Policy Analysis at Indiana University. Examining the use of collective action,trust, and cooperation in the management of common pool resources (CPR), her institutional approach to public policy, known as the Institutional analysis and development framework (IAD), has been considered sufficiently distinct to be thought of as a separate school of public choice theory. She authored many books in the fields of organizational theorypolitical science, and public administration.
Ostrom’s early work emphasized the role of public choice on decisions influencing the production of public goods and services. Among her better known works in this area is her study on the polycentricity of police functions in the Greater St. Louis areas. Her later, and more famous, work focused on how humans interact with ecosystems to maintain long-term sustainable resource yields. Common pool resources include many forests, fisheries, oil fields, grazing lands, and irrigation systems. She conducted her field studies on the management of pasture by locals in Africa and irrigation systems management in villages of western Nepal (e.g., Dang). Her work has considered how societies have developed diverse institutional arrangements for managing natural resources and avoiding ecosystem collapse in many cases, even though some arrangements have failed to prevent resource exhaustion. Her work emphasized the multifaceted nature of human–ecosystem interaction and argues against any singular “panacea” for individual social-ecological system problems. Her intellectual curiosity led her to study local public economies—in particular the municipal provision of police services, the management of water supplies, fisheries, forestry, and development in the less-developed world. Her framework of analysis builds from a model of humanly rational choice to a historically grounded institutional analysis. She studies the rules that govern the behavior of individuals in their interactions both with nature and with one another.
Ostrom identified eight “design principles” of stable local common pool resource management:
  1. Clearly defined boundaries (effective exclusion of external un-entitled parties);
  2. Rules regarding the appropriation and provision of common resources that are adapted to local conditions;
  3. Collective-choice arrangements that allow most resource appropriators to participate in the decision-making process;
  4. Effective monitoring by monitors who are part of or accountable to the appropriators;
  5. A scale of graduated sanctions for resource appropriators who violate community rules;
  6. Mechanisms of conflict resolution that are cheap and of easy access;
  7. Self-determination of the community recognized by higher-level authorities; and
  8. In the case of larger common-pool resources, organization in the form of multiple layers of nested enterprises, with small local CPRs at the base level.
These principles have since been slightly modified and expanded to include a number of additional variables believed to affect the success of self-organized governance systems, including effective communication, internal trust and reciprocity, and the nature of the resource system as a whole.

Much of the last century of political and economic discourse has been dominated by a debate between advocates of perfect markets and perfect central planners. The latter strove to demonstrate market failure, then would insist that government would provide the necessary corrective. Ostrom was one of the core thinkers in the social sciences to say, “Hold on. Markets may fail, but government solutions also might not work.” One must always remember that Elinor and Vincent Ostrom are foundational contributors to the theory of Public Choice. But the Ostroms went further than simply demonstrating the possibility of government failure.


Ostrom and her many co-researchers have developed a comprehensive “Social-Ecological Systems (SES) framework”, within which much of the still-evolving theory of common-pool resources and collective self-governance is now located.
According to the Norwegian Institute for Urban and Regional Research, “Ostrom cautioned against single governmental units at global level to solve the collective action problem of coordinating work against environmental destruction. Partly, this is due to their complexity, and partly to the diversity of actors involved. Her proposal was that of a polycentric approach, where key management decisions should be made as close to the scene of events and the actors involved as possible.”
Ostrom was a member of the United States National Academy of Sciences and past president of the American Political Science Association and the Public Choice Society. In 1999, she became the first woman to receive the prestigious Johan Skytte Prize in Political Science.
Ostrom was awarded the Frank E. Seidman Distinguished Award for Political Economy in 1998. Her presented paper, on “The Comparative Study of Public Economies”, was followed by a discussion among Kenneth ArrowThomas Schelling and Amartya Sen. She was awarded the John J. Carty Award from the National Academy of Sciences in 2004, and, in 2005, received the James Madison Award by the American Political Science Association. In 2008, she became the first woman to receive the William H. Riker Prize in political science; and, the following year, she received the Tisch Civic Engagement Research Prize from the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Citizenship and Public Service at Tufts University. In 2010, the Utne Reader magazine included Ostrom as one of the “25 Visionaries Who Are Changing Your World”. She was named one of Time magazine’s “100 Most Influential People in the World” in 2012.
The International Institute of Social Studies (ISS) awarded its Honorary Fellowship to her in 2002.  In 2009, Ostrom became the first woman to receive the prestigious Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences. The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences cited Ostrom “for her analysis of economic governance”, saying her work had demonstrated how common property could be successfully managed by groups using it. Ostrom and Oliver E. Williamson shared the 10-million Swedish kronor (£910,000; $1.44 million) prize for their separate work in economic governance.
The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences said Ostrom’s “research brought this topic from the fringe to the forefront of scientific attention…by showing how common resources – forests, fisheriesoil fields or grazing lands – can be managed successfully by the people who use them rather than by governments or private companies”. Ostrom’s work in this regard challenged conventional wisdom, showing that common resources can be successfully managed without government regulation or privatization.  In the history of political economy the source of social order has been attributed either to the invisible hand of market coordination (Adam Smith) or the heavy hand of state control (Hobbes). Perhaps one of the best ways to understand Elinor Ostrom’s work is to see it as working out a Hobbesian problem by way of a Smithian solution. That is perhaps a bit of a stretch but not by much. Her work on local public economies and common-pool resources focuses on actual “rules in use” (as opposed to the “rules in form”) that decentralized individuals and groups rely on to make decisions and to coordinate their behavior in order to overcome social dilemmas. It yields an optimistic message about the power of self-governance to succeed even in difficult situations. As my colleague Alex Tabarrok put it, Ostrom sees how, through various voluntary associations, groups transform the common-pool resource situation from a “tragedy of the commons” to an “opportunity of the commons.”

When she became the first woman to win the Nobel, the managing editor of The Progressive magazine fretted that she was being identified as a libertarian, and asked her about it.  I’m not sure her answers were what he was hoping for:

Q: What’s your stance on privatization and property rights?
Ostrom: I don’t equate them. So, and in the Nobel speech I state this very clearly, at an earlier juncture we thought that property rights meant one right and only one right: the right to sell. That was what I learned in graduate school, and that was the dominant thinking. As we were doing massive analysis of what people were doing out there in the field, we found many people who did not have the right to sell but had managed well. Many groups are able—if they can have management and decide who is in and who is out—to do very well, even if they can’t sell. They still have property rights.  In some places, privatization has worked well. I’m not anti-it. I’m anti-it as a panacea.
Q: Libertarians have tried to co-opt your work by saying it shows the unsuitability of large-scale, top-down economic arrangements.
Ostrom: A question is: How do we change some of our governance arrangements so that we can have more trust? We must have a court system, and that court system needs to be reliable and trustworthy. The important thing about large-scale is the court system. For example, you would not have civil rights for people of black origin in the United States but for a federal court system and also the courage of Martin Luther King and others—people who had the courage to challenge, and a legal system where, at least in some places, the right to challenge was legitimate.
We have a colleague working in Liberia. You had thugs recruiting young kids until recently. Having a legal system that does not allow thugs to capture kids, torment them, and make them use weapons is very important.
Q: Your getting the Nobel Prize in Economics is significant in that you’re the first woman to win it.
Ostrom: I hope it’s more for my work than my gender. I was thrilled, I was honored as a woman, having fought a lot of my life against the presumption that women would not be professionals. I think that’s changing. We now have more women graduate students in the social sciences. There were a number of women last year who received the Nobel, and so that was a good sign to the future. I don’t think it will be very long, and there’ll be another woman. Maybe even this year. Who knows?


Her colleagues at Indiana University described Ostrom as “humble and hardworking,” and another Nobel Prize winner, Vernon Smith, calls her a “remarkable scholar” with a passionate drive to understand human societies in all their variety. A former president of the Public Choice Society and the American Association of Political Science, Ostrom is also one of the most beloved teachers in academia. The Workshop in Political Theory and Policy Analysis at Indiana University that she co-directed with her husband, Vincent, is perhaps the ideal model for a research and graduate education center.


Traditional economic theory argues that public goods cannot be provided through the market. Traditional Public Choice theory argues that government often fails to provide solutions. Ostrom shows that decentralized groups can develop various rule systems that enable social cooperation to emerge through voluntary association.


A point that sometimes trips up readers is that Ostrom often focuses on situations where the technology of parceling property into private plots does not exist. In these situations she studies collective, but non-State decision-making over common-pool resources. While private-property solutions are not employed in such cases, the “rules in use” that do operate accomplish what private property would have accomplished. We find rules that limit access and that make individuals in the group accountable for their misuse of the resource. We also find enforcement of those rules. In short, the analyst must be willing to look at both the form and function of rules in a variety of social situations.

Ostrom was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in October 2011 and died of the disease on June 12, 2012, at the age of 78. She was survived by her husband, Vincent Ostrom, though he died later that same month. On the day of her death, she published her last article, “Green from the Grassroots,” in Project Syndicate. Indiana University president Michael McRobbie wrote: “Indiana University has lost an irreplaceable and magnificent treasure with the passing of Elinor Ostrom”.

Distinguished Professor and Nobel Laureate, RIP

13 Jun

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
June 12, 2012

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. — The entire Indiana University community mourns the passing today of Distinguished Professor Elinor Ostrom, who received the 2009 Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences for her groundbreaking research on the ways that people organize themselves to manage resources.

Elinor Ostrom

Photo by Chris Meyer
Elinor Ostrom
Ostrom, 78, died of cancer at 6:40 a.m. today at IU Health Bloomington Hospital surrounded by friends. She was senior research director of the Vincent and Elinor Ostrom Workshop in Political Theory and Policy Analysis, Distinguished Professor and Arthur F. Bentley Professor of Political Science in the College of Arts and Sciences, and professor in the School of Public and Environmental Affairs.
She is survived by Vincent Ostrom, her husband and colleague. She also leaves behind a large extended family of colleagues, collaborators, staff and friends, in Bloomington and on five continents, who worked closely with her during an extraordinary 50-year career.
Ostrom shared the 2009 Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel, also known as the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences, with University of California economist Oliver Williamson. She was the first woman and remains the only woman to be awarded the prize.
“Indiana University has lost an irreplaceable and magnificent treasure with the passing of Elinor Ostrom,” IU President Michael A. McRobbie said. “Throughout her lifetime, Lin has brought distinction to the university through her groundbreaking work, which received the ultimate recognition in 2009 when she was awarded the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences.
“Beyond her passion for the epochal academic study of the intersections between economics and societal institutions, which she and her husband, Vincent, pursued throughout their remarkable careers at Indiana University, Lin’s love for her students and the enduring support she has provided to her colleagues will leave a lasting legacy that stretches well beyond IU. Their generosity to Indiana University was extraordinary as well, with gifts, including Lin’s Nobel Prize funds, totaling many millions of dollars.
“We are proud that Lin’s life work will continue to be represented through the efforts of those at the Vincent and Elinor Ostrom Workshop in Political Theory and Policy Analysis, and I am especially honored to have called Lin a friend and colleague,” McRobbie said. “The entire Indiana University community joins me in offering its deepest sympathies to Lin’s husband and outstanding faculty member, Vincent, and to her family.”
“Lin Ostrom was an exemplary citizen of the Bloomington campus,” said Lauren Robel, IU Bloomington provost and university executive vice president. “Along with her husband, Vincent, she was extraordinarily generous with her intellectual gifts, and invited interdisciplinary and innovative collaboration with her colleagues across the campus through the Workshop in Political Theory and Policy Analysis.
“Beyond her incredible achievements as a scholar, she was also remarkable for her humility, kindness and boundless curiosity,” Robel said. “We have been exceptionally fortunate that Lin made her academic home here on this campus. Although she will be deeply missed, we take comfort in knowing that her work on the campus will carry on through the Workshop that now bears her and Vincent’s names.”
“Our dear friend Lin may have left us, but her spirit, and her work, will live on in those of us fortunate to have known her as a colleague and mentor,” said Michael McGinnis, director of the Workshop and IU professor of political science. “Now it’s our responsibility to carry on her legacy, and that of Vincent.”
Although she was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in late 2011, Ostrom continued to find joy in traveling to places as distant as India and Mexico, working with colleagues on grants and publications, writing letters of recommendation, advising and teaching a graduate seminar. She was never happier than when she was conducting field research with her students.
In April 2012, she was named to the Time 100, Time magazine’s annual list of the 100 most influential people in the world. In May 2012, the IU Board of Trustees approved renaming the Workshop in Political Theory and Policy Analysis to honor Elinor and Vincent Ostrom.
The Ostroms were recognized in February 2010 with the University Medal, the highest award bestowed by Indiana University. McRobbie, who presented the medal, also announced Elinor Ostrom’s elevation to the rank of distinguished professor, the university’s most prestigious academic appointment.
An Indiana University faculty member since 1965, Ostrom has conducted research on topics ranging from the effectiveness of urban police departments to the management of groundwater basins, irrigation systems, pasture lands, forests and fisheries.
In addition to her positions at IU, Ostrom was founding director of the Center for the Study of Institutional Diversity at Arizona State University. Known as a dedicated and tireless teacher and mentor, she chaired or served on dissertation and advisory committees for more than 130 Ph.D. students and took a continued interest in their careers.
Elinor Ostrom

Photo by Ric Cradick
Elinor Ostrom
The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences awarded the 2009 Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences to Ostrom “for her analysis of economic governance, especially the commons.” Through a multidisciplinary approach that combined theory, field studies and laboratory experiments, she showed that ordinary people are capable of creating rules and institutions that allow for the sustainable and equitable management of shared resources. Her work countered the conventional wisdom that only private ownership or top-down regulation could prevent a “tragedy of the commons,” in which users would inevitably destroy the resources that they held in common.
Ostrom was born Elinor Awan on Aug. 7, 1933, in Los Angeles. She often talked about the influence on her life of being a child of the Great Depression, helping her family grow food in a large garden and knitting scarves for soldiers during World War II. As a self-described “poor kid in a rich kid’s school,” Beverly Hills High School, she swam competitively and competed on the debate team.
Although her parents didn’t have college degrees, she worked her way through UCLA, graduating in three years, and then worked in the private sector before entering graduate school. Despite resistance to admitting women to doctoral programs, she earned an M.A. and a Ph.D. in political science from UCLA.
Dissertation research on Los Angeles’ West Basin groundwater resource introduced Ostrom to the study of common-pool resources, in which multiple users have access and potentially compete for a limited supply of goods or services. Later, at IU, she studied police departments in Indianapolis and Chicago.
She moved to Indiana when her husband, Vincent Ostrom, was hired as a professor of political science. She was initially hired as a visiting assistant professor, she said, because the department needed someone to teach American government at 7:30 a.m.
Together, the Ostroms founded the Workshop in Political Theory and Policy Analysis in 1973. They called the research center a “workshop” because of a conviction that research skills are best acquired and used in a setting where students, working as apprentices and journeymen, have the opportunity to collaborate with experienced scholars.
Over the years, the Workshop became a hub for an international network of scholars and scientists from many disciplines. It also served as a model for the types of collective action that Ostrom studied, with faculty and staff sharing responsibility for day-to-day activities.
Elinor Ostrom’s best known book, “Governing the Commons: the Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action,” examines effective governance systems for common-pool resources, drawing on studies of water management districts, irrigation systems, grazing resources, fisheries, forests and other examples.
She was a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the National Academy of Sciences and the American Philosophical Society. She received numerous international awards, including honorary doctorates from universities in India, France, Germany, Sweden, Canada, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Norway and the United States.
She has served on the editorial boards of more than two dozen academic journals and is the author of hundreds of articles and chapters and more than two dozen books, including “Understanding Institutional Diversity,” “The Samaritan’s Dilemma: The Political Economy of Development Aid” and “Working Together: Collective Action, the Commons, and Multiple Methods in Practice.”
She was president of the Public Choice Society from 1982 to 1984 and president of the American Political Science Association in 1996-97. She was the first woman to serve as chair of the IU Bloomington Department of Political Science, holding the position from 1980 to 1984.
The Workshop is closed today because of Ostrom’s death. Plans for a memorial celebration will be announced later.
Memorial contributions may be made to the Tocqueville Fund for the Workshop.

Elinor Ostrom, RIP

13 Jun

by Mario Rizzo

by Mario Rizzo
This will not be a review of her scholarly contributions. I have already made some attempt at that in a post shortly after her richly-deserved Nobel prize in economics. And I also link an announcement of her death here. 
I met Professor Ostrom at a celebration of her work at GMU after she won the prize. I was fortunate enough to be invited to dinner with her a just a few other people afterwards. I was so positively impressed by her, first, as a human being. She was kind, funny and liked a good scotch. (I stuck with the wine.) As a scholar, she was not only brilliant but she was non-dogmatic about methods, willing to learn from others, and had a wonderful combination of humility and self-confidence. She knew how important a good story is to the advancement of science, and not just heuristically.
She and Peter Boettke apparently “clicked” academically. After all, he saw her importance and published a book about her work before the Nobel Committee recognized her (and 99% of all economists ever heard of her!).
At the end of obituaries it is customary to say “she will be missed.” But, really, this time she will be missed by more than her family and friends, but by all of those who learned from her writings or from her in person. We carry on —  impoverished by her death, enriched by her life.