June 14, 2012

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Through my work over the years I have often been directed to the worlds of Elinor OstromElinor Ostrom, and toward speaking to her in person. Alas, the latter choice is now off the table. She died yesterday, at 78, of pancreatic cancer.

On Monday evening, in the Q&A during my talk, I was asked about the relevance of Ostrom’s work to mine around VRM and The Intention Economy. I answered, with regret, that my sourcing of Ostrom was limited to a bibliography entry, after I had to reduce the curb weight of the book from 120,000 words to 80,000. So here’s one section, recovered from the cutting room floor:

In Governing the Commons (1990), Elinor Ostrom says Hardin’s argument is not new:

Aristotle long ago observed that “what is common to the greatest number has the least care bestowed upon it. Everyone thinks chiefly of his own, hardly at all of the common interest” (Politics Book II, ch. 3). Hobbes’s parable of man in a state of nature is a prototype of the tragedy of the commons: Men see their own good and end up fighting one another…[1]

She goes on to cite a long list of other sources, the growing sum of which have long since snowballed into a single widely held conclusion: “Much of the world is dependent on resources that are subject to the possibility of a tragedy of the commons.”[2]

Yet Hardin’s model, she explains, is an argument of one very narrow kind: a prisoner’s dilemma, “conceptualized as a noncooperative game in which all players possess complete information … When both players choose their dominant strategy… they produce an equlibrium that is the third-best result for both.” The game is fascinating for scholars because “The paradox that individually rational strategies lead to collectively irrational outcomes seems to challenge the fundamental faith that rational beings can achieve rational results.” She adds, “The deep attraction of the dilemma is further illustrated by the number of articles written about it. At one count, 15 years ago, more than 2,000 papers had been devoted to the prisoner’s dilemma game (Grofman and Pool 1975).”[3]

Ostrom, however, doesn’t challenge Hardin’s assumption that common pool resources and a commons are the same thing.[1] Lewis Hyde does. In Common as Air (2010), he makes a thoroughly argued case against both Hardin’s tragedy-prone commons and idealized models, such as what he calls John Locke’s “aboriginal first condition” and Lawrence Lessig’s “dreams of pentitude.” What Hyde argues for is something much more complex, subtle and—I believe—important to understand if we are to make the most of the Internet.

“I take a commons to be a kind of property,” Hyde writes, “and I take ‘property’ to be, by one old dictionary definition, a right of action,” noting “that ownership rarely consists of the entire set of possible actions.”


[1] Elinor Ostrom, Governing the Commons: The evolution of institutions for collective action. (New York, Cambridge University Press, 1990) 2-3. [2] Ibid., 3. [3] Ibid, 4-5.

[4] In fairness, Hyde notes, “Garret Hardin has indicated that his original essay should have been titled ‘The Tragedy of the Unmanaged commons,’ though better still might be ‘The Tragedy of Unmanaged, Laissez-Faire, Common-Pool Resources with Easy Access for Noncommunicating, Self-Interested Individuals.” (Common as Air, 44.) [Links added.]

The final version focuses entirely on Lewis Hyde’s work, which I believe encompasses Elinor Ostrom’s, at least for my purposes in the book. Still, leaving her out seems especially regrettable now.

And I encourage study of her work. Our common pool resources, which are many and of transcendant importance, are well served by her original thinking about them.

Bonus linkage: