Review (Guest): Governing the Commons – The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action

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Amazon Page
Amazon Page

Elinor Ostrom

4.0 out of 5 stars Addressing the Collective Action Problem August 2, 2007

By Matthew P. Arsenault

Ostrom attempts to refute the belief that only through state and or market-centered controls can commonly pooled resources (CPRs) be effectively governed. Ostrom writes, “Communities of individuals have relied on institutions resembling neither the state nor the market to govern some resource systems with reasonable degrees of success over long periods of time” (p. 1). Governing the Commons sets out to discover why some groups are able to effectively govern and manage CPRs and other groups fail. She tries to identify both the internal and external factors “that can impede or enhance the capabilities of individuals to use and govern CPRs.”

The first section of the book examines both state-controlled and privatization property rights regimes, and illustrates failures in both regimes; namely, that central authorities often fail to have complete accuracy of information, have only limited monitoring capabilities, and possess a weak sanctioning reliability. As such, a centralized governing body may actually govern the commons inaccurately and make a bad situation worse. In the case of privatized property rights regimes, Ostrom illustrates two main points: 1) it assumes that property is homogenous and any division of property will be equitable; and 2) privatization will not work with non-stationary property (fisheries, for example).

After discussing the state-controlled and privatization property rights regimes, Ostrom attempts examine the causes of successful CPR governance, and the catalysts which lead to failure. Being part of the “new institutionalist” school, Ostrom seeks to examine the rules, structures, and frameworks within the various CPR governance structures. Ostrom has discovered a number of “design principles” within the successful CPR governance cases. These principles include: 1) a clear definition of boundaries, 2) monitors who either are appropriators of the resource or accountable to the appropriators, 3) graduated sanctions, 4) mechanisms controlled by the appropriators used to mediate conflict and when necessary, change the rules, 5) a congruence between the rules used and the local conditions.

In other words, Ostrom suggests that these “design principles,” form a cooperative institutional structure. If the correct institutions are in place, the players will see cooperation as the best means to gain optimal outcomes. These mechanisms create a confidence between players that defections will be minimal, and those that do defect will be sanctioned accordingly. Additionally, the institutional structures create an environment in which resources are distributed in such a way that all (or at least most) players benefit. As such, many of these institutional structures must be accompanied by a good deal of trust between players. This can only be developed over time and is most likely to succeed when the number of players in the CPR is reasonably small.

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