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That Cold-Hearted Discipline – Article by David J. Hebert

That Cold-Hearted Discipline – Article by David J. Hebert

The New Renaissance Hat
David J. Hebert
November 6, 2013

But of all the duties of beneficence, those which gratitude recommends to us approach nearest to what is called a perfect and complete obligation. What friendship, what generosity, what charity, would prompt us to do with universal approbation, is still more free, and can still less be extorted by force than the duties of gratitude. —Adam Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments

A recent article by Wharton Professor Adam Grant has been popping up here and there, most recently in Psychology Today. Grant suggests that studying economics breeds greed, and he cites several studies to support his claim. The studies conclude economics professors give less money to charity than other professions, economics students are more likely to deceive others for personal gain, and people who study economics have less of a concern for fairness and tend to think that “greed” is okay.

To his credit, Grant does consider the alternative: that maybe economics actually attracts greedy people or that greedy people tend to thrive by studying economics. He dismisses these possibilities by noting that “there is evidence for selection . . . but this doesn’t rule out the possibility that studying economics pushes people further toward the selfish extreme.” He goes on to chide practitioners of the discipline for teaching self-interest in the classroom.

Finally, he concludes with four points that are meant to provide evidence of the social harm in studying economics, which can be summarized in two overarching points:

1) Economics justifies greedy behavior, and

2) Studying economics makes people less altruistic.

I want briefly to discuss these two points here.

Economics Justifies Greedy Behavior?

Studying economics, and specifically the role of incentives, teaches us that relying on altruism is a brave assumption that has but limited applicability. For example, among people we know, we can rely on a certain degree of altruism or benevolence. I know, for example, that my family and friends will be there for me not because I pay them to do so, but because they care about me. Similarly, they know I will be there for them. However, I don’t know the same thing about random people I encounter on the street.

And yet in order to enjoy the immense wealth that the division of labor affords us, society demands that we have interactions both with people we know well and people we do not know at all. These two distinct spheres of activity require two distinct forms of cooperation, which one might get from reading Adam Smith’s twin pillars of economics: The Theory of Moral Sentiments and The Wealth of Nations.

More tidily, perhaps, F. A. Hayek describes this situation in The Fatal Conceit by noting the difference between the macroeconomy and the microeconomy. Macro, in this context, refers to society as a whole, while micro refers to just the people to whom we are close. Hayek says that if we were to apply the same rules of the family unit to the macro, as would be the case if we were to allocate resources altruistically, we would destroy the macro. This is because there would be a complete lack of economic calculation, resources would be misallocated, and plans would fail to be coordinated (see these articles for more on economic calculation).

Hayek also notes that the reverse is true: If we were to apply the rules of the market to the family, we would destroy it as well. We don’t need prices and incomes at the dinner table to allocate the food. Even the most ardent defender of markets would agree that having prices and such as the means of allocating food at the dinner table would be wrong, just like paying your friends to help you move across town would be strange. (Beer and pizza don’t count.)

Instead, students of economics recognize not that greed is good, as the saying goes, but that greed can be transformed into the service of others given the proper institutional setting. That institutional setting, which has been thoroughly discussed elsewhere, is one that celebrates the role of property rights, prices, and profits (and losses) and recognizes their role in creating the incentives to properly husband resources, generates the information about the relative scarcities of various goods and transmits this information to consumers and producers in a quick and efficient manner, all of which provides a feedback mechanism to drive continued innovation.

Economics Makes People Less Altruistic?

Grant cites a 2005 article by Neil Gandal et. al. as concluding that “students who planned to study economics rated helpfulness, honesty, loyalty, and responsibility as just as important as students who were studying communications, political science, and sociology,” but that by the third year, economics students rated these values “significantly less important than first-year economics students.”

While the Gandal study does include such conclusions, it also includes much more. For example, economics students attribute less importance to fairness. Evidencing this, Gandal points out that, when questioned about the allocation of radio frequencies to different mobile-phone service providers, students who study economics are more likely to advocate selling the rights to the highest bidder while students of other disciplines are more likely to advocate for allocating the rights to “anybody who meets some minimal eligibility criteria.”

Students of economics do not advocate for property rights because we are greedy; we advocate for property rights because we understand and take seriously potential incentive problems in politics. The notion of minimal eligibility requirements may sound nice, for example, but problems may lie in who gets to draw that line, by what process that line gets drawn, and the incentives faced by the line-drawers. As Madison points out in Federalist 51, “If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary.”

Economics students know men are no angels. And as Nobel laureate James Buchanan points out, government officials are human beings, too, with their own hopes, dreams, and aspirations—and yes, forms of avarice. Supporting the allocation of resources to the highest bidder sidesteps the issues raised by these potential incentive problems. This means that the choice of how to allocate resources fundamentally comes down to a choice of institutions.

We can have a central authority establish guidelines by which anyone who wants can use the radio frequencies, or we can let the market decide. The former leads to a standard tragedy of the commons problem, whereby the radio frequency gets overused. In the case of cell phones, this means that the frequency would be crowded with multiple conversations simultaneously; imagine trying to shout to your friend across a crowded bar. The latter leads to the frequencies being allocated to the person who is best able to utilize them to serve the general population. So AT&T, for example, gets exclusive rights to a certain bandwidth and then tries to figure out how to best serve its customers. In this case, the customer gets to enjoy a clear phone call without the distraction of several other conversations in their ear simultaneously.

In any case, these are not examples of quelling altruism, but of keeping it in its place.

Less Greed, More Cooperation

Viewed in this light, economics does not so much teach greed but rather the beauty of cooperation. How else could we explain how a woolen coat gets made, how Paris gets fed, or how a pencil gets made? And if allocating, say, radio frequencies based on highest valued use makes people learn to discard fairness, well, how exactly is that a bad thing?

David Hebert is a Ph.D. student in economics at George Mason University. His research interests include public finance and property rights.

This article was originally published by The Foundation for Economic Education.


Editor’s Note by Gennady Stolyarov II: Mr. Hebert’s article is excellent in focusing on the true significance of economics and the need for private property rights. In one important respect, though, my position differs from his when it comes to the allocation of radio frequency to highest bidders such as AT&T and other entities exercising similar coercively granted monopoly and quasi-monopoly powers.

My position, arising out of similar libertarian principles, is that the allocation of radio frequencies to AT&T (and similar local/regional telecommunications monopolies) through the political process would not result in an economically optimal allocation, even if AT&T were the highest bidder. The reason for this is that AT&T’s very bidding ability arises out of (1) its decades-long history as the telephone monopoly in the United States and (2) the protections from competition that it enjoys in certain jurisdictions as a local or regional monopoly provider of certain services wrongly considered “natural monopolies” – such as high-speed cable services. In a pure free-market system, there would likely need to be some sort of allocation process for radio frequencies, so long as the use of radio frequencies by some parties has the physical ability to interfere with the use of the same frequencies by other parties. However, the outcome of such a free-market allocation process would differ considerably from the outcome of a bidding process in today’s status quo, conditioned by decades of deleterious path-dependency arising out of the privileges granted to AT&T and similar local/regional monopolists. Probably, an auction of radio spectrum on a purely free market would result in many smaller firms buying up many smaller ranges of spectrum and competing with one another more vigorously to provide superior customer service than do a handful of large, politically privileged telecommunications companies (AT&T, Comcast, Verizon, et al.) today. In this path-dependent, partially unfree environment it may be, in some cases, that allocations to lower bidders would result in better uses of resources and improved consumer outcomes, as long as institutional political privilege (e.g., enforced monopolies or historical insulation from competition) of the higher bidders can be incorporated into the bidding process in the form of some reasonable handicap used in considering their bids.

The Vital Importance of Property in Land: Part 1 – Arguments for Land as Property – Article by G. Stolyarov II

The Vital Importance of Property in Land: Part 1 – Arguments for Land as Property – Article by G. Stolyarov II

The New Renaissance Hat
G. Stolyarov II
October 14, 2012

In this small series on land and private property, I hope to counter the claims of Henry George and his contemporary followers, who generally support a libertarian view with respect to all property except land – which they do not consider to be legitimate property. I, on the contrary, see the ability to own property in land (based on a true Lockean understanding of “mixing one’s labor” with rightfully owned land, or legitimately acquiring it from those who did) as indispensable to the existence of other property rights – as well as, more generally, to the expression of human individuality and the improvement of the human condition.

Why is property in land essential for the exercise of all other property rights? In this first installment, I provide six arguments.

Argument 1: Use of Personal Property: If there is no property in land, one cannot be guaranteed the ability to set one’s personal property in any location for its use and enjoyment. This means, ultimately, the use and enjoyment of one’s personal property is always at the discretion – and with the permission – of whichever governing authority or collective decision-making would supplant the right of private property in land. This is not liberty; the best that it can be is a kind of benign neglect from the persons or committees who have the power to dispose of the land and what is on it.

Argument 2: Complete Ownership: If there is no property in land, then there is never an ability – even in theory – to enjoy the use of land “free and clear” – without paying some sort of rent or “usage fee” to someone. Ignoring property taxes (whose absence is wholly conceivable and would be tremendously beneficial – even if other types of taxes are kept in place), it is possible today for people to pay off any mortgages and liens on their property and to enjoy it outright, without fear of losing the property if they do not pay a continuous stream of money to a third party.  The greatest value of private property comes about precisely when the ownership of that property is absolute – not contingent upon future services or payments rendered to other people.

Argument 3: Opportunity to Choose Leisure or Work: If there is no property in land, and one must continuously and inescapably pay a stream of money to a third party in order to avoid losing the property, then this means that one must continuously earn a sizable income to support that stream of payments. The ability to lead a life of leisure (after having made adequate provision for one’s other needs) is forever closed off to most people (unless they are beneficiaries of trust funds or a fortuitous investment strategy). Whatever the relative merits of work versus leisure might be in any particular situation, a libertarian would hold that the choice to pursue either (or any combination of each) should be up to the individual. Restrictive institutions should not permanently foreclose individuals (in multiple senses of that word) from pursuing one of these alternatives or the other. My own ambition, for instance, is to pay off the mortgage on my house while I am still relatively young. I would continue to engage in paid employment (and hopefully earn decent money) for many decades thereafter, but a lot of the economic pressure would be removed by getting rid of the largest recurring expense, and the same amount of earnings could achieve a much higher standard of living in other respects.

 Argument 4: Incentives for Improvement: If there is no property in land, then there is little incentive (other than sheer benevolence) for the occupant to improve the land by the addition of permanent fixtures, for someone else (or “the community at large”) would capture the values of the improvements, while the occupant would spend his personal resources on the improvements. This is the classic case of a “positive externality” not being realized – or, alternatively, a “tragedy of the commons” situation arising from the community laying claim to a resource that becomes over-exploited and insufficiently maintained. If one wishes for private residential lots to begin to resemble the public roads of a large city in appearance, then doing away with land ownership is an excellent means to that dubious goal.

Argument 5: Individuality: Only through the exercise of the right of private property can a person truly actualize his individual aspirations and distinctive esthetic. True private property enables an individual to act within his own realm as he pleases, as long as he does not infringe on the identical prerogatives of all others with their property. Only private property in land can give an individual the unfettered ability to paint a house with the colors and patterns of one’s choice, to determine the surrounding landscaping, to select the appliances and amenities therein, and to decorate it (which is a right that should not be undervalued, lest we lose it in the age of draconian busybody “homeowners’ associations”). An individual who owns land can truly turn the land and the improvements on it into reflections of himself, rather than just another barren, drab, or cookie-cutter plot (though any of those are within his prerogative as well, if he wishes to be unimaginative). True innovators are always in the minority and always unconventional. If they do not have a sphere where they can act unfettered, then many of their creations may never come to be.

Argument 6: Owned Land versus Land in the State of Nature: While I do not support arbitrary claims of ownership to undeveloped land, I do hold to the Lockean view that a person comes to own land by mixing his labor with it as the first occupant – and only to the extent that he does so. Locke himself argued that a person’s legitimate claim to land extends only to whatever land this person (or others acting on his behalf, through the voluntary exchange or offering of their services) was able to transform with his labor and put to use. Any other (undeveloped) land remains in the state of nature, free for others to claim. This is why Locke opposed arbitrary claims of the King of England to all of the prime forests of that country as the King’s “hunting grounds”. Likewise, one might question whether a Lockean view of property rights would allow national governments today to lay claim to vast undeveloped territories and to preclude development thereon (or sell “development rights” or “resource rights” to those territories). A fully libertarian system of property law would recognize the right of the first occupant and user of a property to be its owner, but only with respect to the land which is truly inextricably involved with such occupancy or use – i.e., land that has been improved and transformed. This is a consistent and universalizable standard for legitimate ownership, and it is a standard that follows directly from the desire to use and transform objects in nature for the improvement of human well-being. Such improvement and transformation are precisely what differentiates owned land from land in the state of nature. Owned land is much more usable and often dedicated to specific purposes, whereas land in the state of nature remains to be adapted to human needs. In practice, the two would look quite different and would enable natural demarcations of private land holdings.

Are We Destroying the Earth? – Article by Sanford Ikeda

Are We Destroying the Earth? – Article by Sanford Ikeda

The New Renaissance Hat
Sanford Ikeda
October 3, 2012

People often complain that mankind is destroying the earth: that insatiable consumption and relentless production have laid waste to irreplaceable swaths of our planet, and that these activities have to stop or someday it will all be gone.

Which raises the question: What does it means to “destroy” something?

When you burn a log, the log is destroyed but heat, light, smoke, and ashes remain.  It’s in that sense that physics tells us that matter is neither created nor destroyed.  Similarly, cutting down a forest destroys the forest but in its place are houses and furniture and suburbs.

The real question is: Is it worth it?

Value Can Be Both Created and Destroyed

What people usually mean when they say mankind is destroying the earth is that human action causes a change they don’t like.  It sounds odd to say that my wife, by eating a piece of toast for breakfast, is “destroying” the toast.  But if I wanted that toast for myself, I might well regard her action as destructive.  Same action, but the interpretation depends on purpose and context.

When a missile obliterates a building and kills the people in it, it may serve a political purpose even though the friends and family of those killed and the owners of the building are harmed.  The perpetrator’s gain is the victim’s loss.  In the political realm, one person’s gain is necessarily another person’s loss.  You rob Peter to pay Paul; you kill Jack to appease Jill.  It’s a “zero-sum game.”

In the economic realm, however, a thing is destroyed to the extent that it loses its usefulness to somebody for doing something.  Someone may want to bulldoze my lovely home just for fun.  If she pays me enough I may let her do it and be glad she did.  When not physically coerced, a trade won’t happen unless each side expects to gain.  If it does happen, and if the people who traded are right, then all do in fact gain.  Each is better off than before. The trade has created something–value.  If they are wrong they destroy value and suffer a loss, which gives them an incentive to avoid making mistakes.

Profits and Losses Help to Minimize the Destruction of Value

In free markets gains manifest themselves in profit, either monetary or psychic.  (In the short run, of course, you can sustain a monetary loss if you think there’s a worthwhile nonmonetary aspect to the trade that will preserve the profit.)  Now, the free market is not perfect, despite what some economics professors say about the benefits of so-called “perfect competition.”  People don’t have complete or perfect knowledge and so they make mistakes.  They trade when they shouldn’t, or they don’t trade when they should.  Fortunately, profits and losses serve as feedback to guide their decisions.

There’s another source of market imperfection.  People may be capable of making good decisions but they don’t trade, or trade too much, because the property rights to the things they would like to trade aren’t well-defined or aren’t effectively enforced.  In such cases their actions or inactions create costs they don’t bear or benefits they don’t receive.  The result is that their decisions end up destroying value.

If I free-ride off the oceans, if for example I don’t pay for dumping garbage into it, then the oceans will become more polluted than they should be.  If there is a cleaner, more efficient source of energy than fossil fuels, but no one can profitably use it because the national government prevents anyone from doing so (for example by prohibitions or excessive taxation), then again the value that would have been created will never appear.

Aesthetics or Economics?

Our esthetic sense of beauty is part of what makes us human.  If we wish to protect a lake or a valley from development because we think it beautiful, how do we do that?

To some extent it’s possible to do what the Nature Conservancy does, and purchase the land that we want to protect.  But that’s not always possible, especially when the land is controlled not by private persons but by the national government, which makes special deals with crony capitalists in so-called public-private developments.  In any case, even the free market is not perfect.  Economic development and material well-being mean that some beautiful landscapes and irreplaceable resources will be changed in ways not everyone will approve.

Remember, though, that economics teaches us that an action is always taken by someone for something.  There are no disembodied costs, benefits, and values.  In a world of scarcity, John believes saving rain forests is more important than saving the whales.  Mary believes the opposite.  If we are to get past disagreements on esthetics–essentially differences of opinion–that can turn into violent conflict, we need to find some way to settle our differences peacefully, some way to transform them into value-creating interactions.

Imperfect though it may be, the free market has so far been the most effective method we know of for doing that.

Sanford Ikeda is an associate professor of economics at Purchase College, SUNY, and the author of The Dynamics of the Mixed Economy: Toward a Theory of Interventionism.

This article was published by The Foundation for Economic Education and may be freely distributed, subject to a Creative Commons Attribution United States License, which requires that credit be given to the author.

Ice and Economics – Article by David J. Hebert

Ice and Economics – Article by David J. Hebert

The New Renaissance Hat
David J. Hebert
July 21, 2012

What can ice teach us about economics? We’ll see, but let’s begin with some fundamentals.

Prices, property rights, and profit (and loss) lead to information, incentives, and innovation. This simple statement contains nearly every lesson necessary for a free and prosperous society. But what do these words mean?

Prices convey information about relative scarcities and communicate to us the relative value of competing uses of a resource. They also economize on the acquisition of knowledge. When we see the price of a resource rise, market actors understand the need to use less of the resource. What they don’t know, however, is whether this rise is due to a disaster that destroyed some of the stock of that resource (an inward supply shift) or if a new, more valuable use for that resource has been discovered (an outward demand shift). These facts are irrelevant for a person who is currently using the resource, but from a societal level, her using less is necessary. If there is a disaster, we would want people to use less of it so that everyone else can still use some. If there is a new, more valuable use discovered, we would want the original users to use less so that more could be allocated towards this new use.

The Right to Exclude

Property rights refers not only to the right to use a resource, but also to the right to exclude others from its use. In this sense property rights provide the incentive to allocate the use of a resource efficiently across time, for example, to conserve it for later. With firmly established and enforced property rights, not only does the owner not have to worry about someone else taking his things but he also doesn’t have to rush out to gather the resources as quickly as he can. A situation where there are no property rights is susceptible to what is called the “tragedy of the commons,” where the resource gets depleted too quickly and never has a chance to replenish.

Profit (and loss) leads to innovation. Earning a profit is akin to being rewarded for doing something good. Suffering a loss is the opposite, a punishment for doing something wrong. In this case, the deed being done is the attempt to allocate scarce resources to where their will earn their highest return. People who successfully do this are rewarded with monetary gain, which we call “profit.” People who fail to do this experience what we call “loss.” In doing so, economic actors learn what works and what does not. Reducing the profitability of an activity through taxes or legislation or sheltering people from losses, therefore, acts to retard this learning process and stifles innovation.

This lesson is exemplified in early nineteenth-century Boston with the rise of the American natural ice trade. In 1806 Frederic Tudor sailed a ship full of ice from Boston to the Bahamas. Two years earlier Tudor had begun experimenting with insulation with the goal of bringing ice to the Bahamas.  When he was ready to set sail, he found that the ship captains refused to carry his cargo for fear of damaging their vessels. So he bought his own brig, the Favorite, and set sail February 10, 1806. He arrived in Martinique with a large quantity of ice still intact and began selling. The Bahamians loved the ice, which they had never seen before. Yet that first year Tudor lost a substantial sum of money, although he proved that ice could be shipped to the Bahamas. Now the objective became doing it at a profit.  Convinced his idea would be wildly successful, he continued his attempts to drive down costs and increase demand.

Higher Return

Meanwhile, as the price of the ice on the ponds rose, the people of Boston gained the information that the ice would bring a higher return in the Bahamas, thus they used less themselves and sold the ice to the Bahamians. In 1840 the ponds in the Boston area were explicitly divided, giving each person on the lake the right to exclude everyone else from harvesting any ice that wasn’t theirs. This allowed Tudor, for example, to invest in his ice and let it freeze longer so that it could better survive the long journey from Boston to India, which entailed crossing the equator twice and sailing around the tip of Africa. As Tudor earned profit from his venture, more people were attracted to the ice.

To continue to earn a profit, therefore, he had to find a way to outcompete everyone else. In 1825 Tudor enlisted the help of Nathaniel Wyeth, one of his suppliers. Tudor noticed that Wyeth’s ice was always significantly cheaper than everyone else’s and was cut in neater blocks which packed more easily. Wyeth had converted some old farm plows into ice-cutting plows and had fastened horseshoes with spikes to allow horses to pull these modified plows across the ice. By scoring the ice in such a fashion, Wyeth could break uniform sized blocks much quicker than his competitors, who were using hand saws that produced very rough and uneven edges.

These wouldn’t be the only contributions of Wyeth, as he went on to invent many other cost saving techniques. For example, Wyeth developed a conveyor-belt system that would haul the ice from the pond into the waiting icehouse.  He also invented bigger plows that could cut more blocks at once and poles that were used to guide the floating ice blocks onto the conveyor belt;  refined the above-ground icehouse, which allowed ice to be stored anywhere in the world for months on end without any external source of refrigeration.

New Insulation

Tudor and Wyeth also experimented with new means of insulating the ice from the heat, discovering that sawdust was not only a fantastic insulator but was also cheaply available from the sawmills around Boston. They also taught their customers new ways to use the ice, including making ice cream and storing the ice in iceboxes to preserve foods longer.

In short the three Ps lead to the three Is: Prices, property rights, and profit (and loss) lead to information, incentives, and innovation.  With these firmly in place, a free and prosperous society will follow.

David Hebert is a Ph.D. Fellow at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University.

This article was originally published by The Foundation for Economic Education.

Property Rights Aren’t Always the Libertarian Solution – Article by Sanford Ikeda

Property Rights Aren’t Always the Libertarian Solution – Article by Sanford Ikeda

The New Renaissance Hat
Sanford Ikeda
July 15, 2012

At FEE’s seminar last week on libertarian perspectives on current events, a participant asked: “How do we privatize the air?”

The student may have had in mind the economic principle, popularized by Ronald Coase, that externalities–especially negative externalities such as air pollution– result from ill-defined or unenforced property rights. The question also seems to reflect a common libertarian idea that in a free society all scarce resources must be owned by somebody. That would include the atmosphere when clean air is scarce.

Property Rights and Economic Development

The Coase Theorem is an economic proposition which says that when property rights are well defined and enforced, and the costs of search, bargaining, and enforcement are reasonably low, voluntary trade will tend to produce results that are economically efficient. Negative externalities will be internalized, as unowned resources are transformed into marketable goods. And if, because of incomplete property rights, entrepreneurs are unable to capture enough of the benefits from their actions (that is, if positive externalities would result), they will be less inclined to make the discoveries that drive economic development. Those benefits would be internalized, too.

There are some positive externalities that most, perhaps all, of those who favor tough property enforcement would hesitate to try to privatize. For example, cultures develop in part on the basis of imitation. Jazz musicians copy from one another all the time, from motifs to entire songs, and reinterpret them in their own creations. Classical musicians have also done this. As a courtesy, the protocol is to name the artist from whom you are copying, such as in “Variations on a Theme of Paganini.”

On an even higher level of abstraction, artists, writers, and even ordinary people partake in an esthetic ethos; scholars, intellectuals, and laymen draw on the intellectual milieu of a place and time. Without the experimentation that comes from such borrowing and give-and-take, cultures would stop evolving; they would die.

The same thing goes for economic development. One entrepreneur discovers a demand for flat-screen televisions and is soon followed by imitators, which in the long run results in lower prices and better quality–and often new products and uses, such as tablet computers.

Don’t get me wrong! Private property rights prevent the kind of free riding that hinders economic development. And of course private property is essential for personal freedom: Property rights not only help to avoid or resolve interpersonal conflict–such as the tragedy of the commons–they are what provide a person with a sphere of autonomy and privacy in an economically developed world where contact with strangers is commonplace.

Elinor Ostrom on the Establishment of Conventions

There are many instances where free riding is a net negative, and the overuse of the atmosphere in the form of air pollution is probably one of them. Despite the efforts of some economists, legislators, and policymakers to institute so-called “cap-and-trade”–which would attempt to establish property rights in the air through government policy–it may be impossible to do something similar for all scarce resources, either by legal mandate or market arrangements. But this need not discourage libertarians, of either the minimal-state or market-anarchist variety.

Consider the work of Elinor Ostrom, winner of the 2009 Nobel Prize in economics, the only women so far to be so honored. Sadly, Ostrom died on June 12, a great loss for social science. While few would consider her a libertarian–I don’t believe she thought she was–libertarians can learn a lot from her work. She is perhaps best known for her 1990 book, Governing the Commons, in which she presented her methods and findings regarding how people coped (or didn’t cope) with what has come to be known as “common-pool resource” (CPR) problems:

What one can observe in the world, however, is that neither the state nor the market is uniformly successful in enabling individuals to sustain long-term, productive use of natural resource systems. Further, 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.

Voluntary Conventions

In those instances the nonstate, nonmarket institutions she studied were, when successful, conventions that the users of common-pool resources agreed to and used sometimes for centuries. They were made voluntarily and evolved over time, but they were not market outcomes, at least in the narrow sense, because no one “owned” the resource in question and it was not bought and sold. Ostrom added:

The central question of this study is how a group of principals who are in an independent situation can organize and govern themselves to obtain continuing joint benefits when all face temptations to free-ride, shirk, or otherwise act opportunistically.

Her research covered the harvesting of forests in thirteenth-century Switzerland and sixteenth-century Japan and irrigation institutions in various regions of fifteenth-century Spain. Although not every community Ostrom studied was successful in establishing such conventions, it is instructive how highly complex agreements, enforced by both local norms and effective monitoring, were able to overcome the free-rider problems that standard economic theory–and perhaps vulgar libertarianism–would predict are insurmountable without property rights.

Dealing with air pollution is of course a more difficult problem since it typically entails a much larger population and more diffuse sources and consequences. But it’s important to realize that a “libertarian solution” to air pollution may not necessarily be a “market solution.”

Sanford Ikeda is an associate professor of economics at Purchase College, SUNY, and the author of The Dynamics of the Mixed Economy: Toward a Theory of Interventionism.

This article was published by The Foundation for Economic Education and may be freely distributed, subject to a Creative Commons Attribution United States License, which requires that credit be given to the author.