Ostrom’s main focus was examining how common pool resources could be managed. She explained that common pool resources included lakes and fisheries because they could not be easily divided into private property, meaning they had to be managed by some of form of collective agreement. Her work, and that of her husband Vincent Ostrom, started by looking at water tables around Los Angeles. Immortalised in the Roman Polanski film China Town, different users were in danger of taking too much water from the system. If too much water was taken, the water table would fall and salt water would be sucked in, destroying the system. The Ostroms found that water users formed associations and, despite difficult challenges, found ways of co-operating to preserve the system.
Listening to Garret Hardin proclaim the Tragedy of the Commons and argue that if the commons were not enclosed they would become eroded, Elinor also became annoyed at his view that population had to be cut by aggressive measures, inspiring her to renew her early work on common pool resources:
Elinor Ostrom: Hardin gave a speech on the [Indiana University, Bloomington] campus, and I went to it, and he indicated the more general — but then it was that he really was worried about population. He indicated that every man and every woman should be sterilised after they have one child. He was very serious about it.
Margaret Levi: This was Garrett Hardin?
Elinor Ostrom: Yes—not Russell [Hardin]. Garrett Hardin. I was somewhat taken aback: “My theory proves that we should do this”, and people said, “Well, don’t you think that that’s a little severe?” “No! That’s what we should do, or we’re sunk.” Well, he, in my mind, became a totalitarian. I, thus, had seen a real instance where his theory didn’t work.
Both Elinor and her husband Vincent called themselves institutionalists because they were interested in how institutions worked, and studied them from the point of view of political economy. They were concerned with two essential problems of how resources could be managed in an ecologically sustainable way and how a self-governing system could be promoted. Vincent, who died just days after Elinor, also of cancer, was a fascinating thinker in his own right, publishing numerous books.
There are, I think, two common approaches to Elinor’s relationship to the left, radical thought and anti-capitalism. One is to suggest that she drew on liberal economics starting with Adam Smith, was hostile to the state and was essentially a Hayekian, and as such had nothing to do with socialism. The opposite approach is to proclaim the commons as the alternative to capitalism and to note that she won a Nobel Prize for theorising the commons and, in this regard, was on the left. I think both approaches tend to over-simplify her nuanced and unusual approach: While skeptical that the state could act as a white knight to deal with inequality and oppression, she was not a libertarian. While a theorist of the commons, she was not a commons fundamentalist as she did not see it as a panacea for all social and ecological ills.
Also, Ostrom never identified with the traditional left. When asked if she took issue with those who call her theories ‘implicitly socialistic’, she replied, “Yes. I don’t think they are supporting socialism as a top-down theory. A lot of socialist governments are very much top-down and I think my theory does challenge that any top-down government, whether on the right or the left, is unlikely to be able to solve many of the problems of resource sustainability in the world”. However, she was no conservative like her friend Amartya Sen, but was instead an advocate of greater social equality, bluntly telling one German newspaper that being “born rich is always bad”.
The Ostroms were certainly aware of Friedrich Hayek’s criticism of central planning, but, while in large agreement, rejected the idea that markets were spontaneously efficient. They believed that all levels of society benefitted from intelligent and experimental institutional design. Difficult to pigeonhole, with their own unique approach, the Ostroms can seem baffling. Neither anarchists, nor free marketeers, nor supporters of top-down control, they were at best very unusual and at worst utterly confusing.
I believe Elinor Ostrom provided a huge resource for all of us who wish to see an alternative to neo-liberalism can begin to learn from. Her own academic practice was radical: She sought an economics that moved beyond the market and the state, advocated a practical form of political ecology, looked at how commons could work for the community, and also showed the importance of careful institutional design in social change. She also challenged models of ‘rational economic man and woman’ and was an advocate for women, minorities, indigenous people and peasants.
Her academic practice was radically egalitarian and gives a practical lesson in this regard to all on the left. Research incorporated respect for others, asking people how they conserved the commons and building on grassroots knowledge. Virtually all of her work was collaborative, when she phoned her husband and told him she had won the Nobel Prize, she typically said, “Honey, we have won a Prize”. So much of their work was ‘we’ not I, and they set up an innovative workshop which, still to this day, practices their community approach to academic work. She asked workshoppers to criticise her draft of her Nobel speech, set-up a free use open-access library of papers on the commons, and was peer-to-peer before the phrase was even invented.