Co-operation Can Beat Competition

Elinor Ostrom, winner of the Nobel Prize in Economic Science

Prue Hyman remembers Elinor Ostrom, Nobel prize winner, who proved that  co-operation can beat competition.

The only woman to win a Nobel for economics

Elinor Ostrom is the only woman to have won the Nobel prize for economics and like many sensible women active on economic policy, she was not an orthodox economist.

As a political economist and academic, she won the prize in 2009 for work in public economics and sadly died just three years later. Her work encourages grassroots activism which should excite us all!

Sceptic on power and individualism

She provided evidence supporting scepticism about the power and inevitability of individualism and its encouragement by corporates and the state. But it also questioned state regulation to curb such power. Instead she demonstrated how local property can be successfully managed by local societies without any regulation by central authorities or by privatisation.

As she said: “There is no reason to believe that bureaucrats and politicians, no matter how well-meaning, are better at solving problems than the people on the spot, who have the strongest incentive to get the solution right.”

Elinor conducted field studies on how people in small, local communities manage shared natural resources – pastures, fishing waters, and forests. She showed that when natural resources are jointly used, rules become established for how these are to be cared for and used in a way that is both economically and ecologically sustainable. These lessons are increasingly important as environmental crises increase.

Her work was a strong counter to the influential but misguided strictures of Garrett Hardin whose famous 1968 publication “The Tragedy of the Commons” was prescribed in almost every orthodox economics teaching programme for many years. Hardin assumed self-interest to be the primary human motivation, an understanding that led to his argument that the commons will always be doomed to failure because communal property will inevitably be exploited for personal gain.

Studies among many small communities

Ostrom did work in the field, the results of which challenged this assumption.

She studied commons management among communities in alpine Switzerland, rural Japan, Kenya, Guatemala, Nepal and Turkey. Hardin’s simplistic insistence that common resources would necessarily be ruined by over-grazing, that rivers and lakes would be fished out, and that wildlife would be hunted to extinction was easy to discredit.

Certainly these communities had problems, with Ostrom well aware that the commons do not inevitably work well. So it is important to study their governance.

  • How are breaches of fairness and communal responsibility addressed?
  • How can risks to land and ecosystems be minimized? Struggle between peoples, communities and individuals is inevitable. It is how this is dealt with that matters, with ongoing processes of maintaining balance in governance needed.

The real tragedy

Forestry devastation — corporates at work

The real tragedy of the commons is the ideology that raises self-interest to the status of a moral imperative. Even the most reckless infringements of the commons in a traditional setting are well below the scale of ruin and devastation caused to our natural resources by privatisation and corporate profiteering.

Cooperation is fragile and needs maintenance, because humans are also highly competitive, particularly when incentivised to be so.

But we are a mixture of cooperative and competitive and have been pushed much too far by neoliberalism towards being competitive. Take fisheries as an example. The quota management system was based on the argument that the commons cannot be sustainably managed without such a system – and it has had many undesirable effects.

For more on the work of Elinor Ostrom, a good start is Jane Goodall at  which I have used in this article.

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