Ostrom and the Commons

Elinor Ostrom's studies of commons-based social organization have important lessons for those looking to develop new commons, online and elsewhere. Here Dan Hind sets out some key findings from her work, and sketches some of the implications.

Dan Hind
17 July 2013

Elinor Ostrom’s research on common pool resources (CPRs) in many ways marks the beginning of the modern debate on the commons. The intellectual consensus when she began her work in postwar America was firmly against the idea that a commonly held property could be durable and economically efficient. In an influential article for Science, ‘The Tragedy of the Commons’, Garrett Hardin had argued that, presented with a natural resource like a fishery or a forest, each individual would take as much as possible, as fast as possible, in the knowledge that everyone else could act in a similar way. For example, farmers would put as many animals on a shared pasture as they could, fearing that everyone else would do likewise:

Each man is locked into a system that compels him to increase his herd without limit – in a world that is limited. Ruin is the destination toward which all men rush, each pursuing his own best interest in a society that believes in the freedom of the commons.

It was a form of reasoning that resonated strongly with what C. Wright Mills called the crackpot realism of the Cold War. Mancur Olson, for example. argued in The Logic of Collective Action that ‘people who can’t be excluded from a collective good have little incentive to contribute towards maintaining it’. The game theorists at RAND were also on hand to reinforce the point with the cold mathematics of the Prisoners’ Dilemma.

In Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action Ostrom drew on a large body of empirical evidence to show that worries about ‘the tragedy of the commons’ were often overstated and sometimes downright misleading. As long as certain conditions are met, there is nothing inevitable about the destruction of shared resources. Far from acting out preordained roles in a headlong rush to destruction, individuals can cooperate with others in their own, much more upbeat dramas.

Ostrom outlines some of factors likely to be present in sustainably managed common pool resources. The first, and perhaps the most important, of these is the need for common resources to be bounded, and access limited to a defined group, with defined rights and responsibilities:

Individuals or households who have rights to withdraw resource units from the CPR must be clearly defined, as must the boundaries of the CPR itself.

For Ostrom the freedom of the commons is not a free-for-all. It is a set of powers and balancing obligations that belong to a defined group of people. Ostrom goes on to set out some other factors that tend to avert tragic over-exploitation. The rules governing how much each individual in this group withdraws, and when, need to be sensitive to local conditions. Those affected by these rules need to be able to participate in modifying them. Those responsible for monitoring the collective arrangements must be accountable to the commoners they serve. Violators of the rules need to be treated in a flexible way by other users or their agents and there need to be adequate conflict resolution mechanisms. Finally, external authorities must not challenge the rights of commoners to devise their own institutional arrangements. The overarching power of the state is often destructive when it seeks to impose order on the apparent messiness of communal property regimes. The power that preserves derives from, and is subordinate to, the commoners themselves. Rationality from above, on the other hand, all too often reproduces the effects of an airstrike.

The danger of over-exploitation remains, even when these conditions are met. But user self-management can work as well as, or better than, both nationalization and the establishment of a private property regime. What Ostrom describes is not so much a tragedy as an everyday story of people behaving sensibly to protect the shared basis for their lives:

Instead of presuming that the individuals sharing a commons are inevitably caught in a trap from which they cannot escape, I argue that the capacity of individuals to extricate themselves from various types of dilemma situation varies from situation to situation.

Ostrom’s work focuses on resources that can be exhausted, and where it is at least possible to limit access to a defined group of users. In the case of open access resources – the deep oceans, the atmosphere and so on – a tragedy is much more likely.

But we shouldn’t take this to mean that existing CPRs have nothing to tell us about how we can best manage large scale, open access commons. If we are to address global warming we will need to learn what we can from successful examples of user self-management. Given that we are all affected by climate change, it might be necessary to establish universal participation in setting the rules that govern how we treat the oceans and the atmosphere. The rules that successfully manage access to the global commons might look a good deal more like those that manage common pool resources now than the protocols and targets that currently emanate from international summits. If scaling up user self-management implies profound changes for national states and transnational institutions, then so be it.

And once we look beyond existing CPRs, we can begin to consider how Ostrom’s principles might apply in other areas, including the creation of credit, the structure of the firm, and the operations of civil society as a field of deliberation, inquiry and decision. If a forest is best managed by those who rely on it, then perhaps this has implications for a national information service like the BBC, or a central bank. Perhaps the firm would similarly benefit from being treated as a common pool resource by customers and employees. Again, if this has implications for private property regimes and state and private bureaucracies, so be it.

On the surface the situation in the digital economy is very different from a commonly managed forest or fishery. We do not deplete ideas by sharing them. Downloading a document or computer programme doesn’t wear it out. And yet it is clearly possible to enclose knowledge and derive material benefits from it. The big digital companies have created spaces that can capture commercially valuable knowledge. We willingly cooperate with every post, every ‘like’, every little moment of disclosure. The close grain of our lives then becomes a marketable resource. What is this, if not the enclosure of subjectivity? That it takes place in the vast shared abundance of the internet only heightens the irony.

Ostrom did more than anyone in recent decades to rehabilitate the commons. Her work remains one of the foremost examples in social science of an ugly theory being disproved by elegant facts. As such it has a lasting poetry. But if we are to make effective use of her practical legacy in the context of the digital economy, we need to think very carefully about the resources we create together and might want to hold in common. There are scarcities in the midst of this new profusion of data.

Perhaps, as the former EU Commissioner Meglena Kuneva has argued, ‘personal data is the new oil of the internet’. If so, it is time to decide whether we want our shared future to be Norwegian or Saudi Arabian.

Dan Hind's second book, The Return of the Public, is published by Verso.

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