Anarchy Without Bombs

Cooperation Without Coercion

Elinor Ostrom’s Legacy: Managing Resources Without Government or Private Property

I never met Elinor Ostrom, 2009 Nobel Laureate in Economics, who has died at the age of 78, but learned much from her on how anarchy could solve the hardest problems. She devoted her professional life to studying how people around the world had actually attempted to manage common resources without resorting to either government property or private property methods, and drew tentative conclusions about what made some approaches successful and others unsuccessful. I hope you’ll read the piece I wrote at the time she won the award:

My attempt in that piece to summarize what she learned follows.


What distinguished the successful attempts to manage commons from the unsuccessful ones in her empirical studies were:

1. Clarity in the boundaries and rules. Lawful people that we are, anarchists have a great appreciation for the minimization of unnecessary conflict. When people know what is and isn’t acceptable behavior to others, it is easier for us to adapt our actions in accordance with those expectations. Of course, the idiots who spout nonsense such as “ignorance of the law is no excuse” are inevitably government prosecutors: the rest of us understand that common law provides its greatest service by clarifying expectations so that people can interact cooperatively and peacefully.

2. Local input and acceptance of these rules. Friedrich Hayek, co-winner of the first Nobel Prize in Economics, would be proud. The closer someone is to a situation, the more things they’ll know that others do not. Central planning, even were it performed by angels, would not produce good rules because of information problems. The fact that angels AREN’T in charge is, of course, another problem. Ostrom is well versed in “public choice” theory and knows that government regulators are humans with their own information AND incentive problems.

3. Active involvement of those most likely to be using the commons in the monitoring of use. The ones who care the most need to either directly involve themselves or else delegate to monitors who are accountable to them. Again, central planners, especially government officials who are accountable, if at all, to a much wider variety of people than those most interested in the commons in question and for a larger variety of activities than just the management of specific commons, cannot effectively monitor them and be held accountable. If the people who most need the commons can’t fire those who fail to protect it, the tragedy is inevitable.

4. Methods for dispute resolution. Central to anarchist theory is the idea that parties with disputes will agree to third party mediation or arbitration of those disputes. One of the inanities of government is that any dispute between the government and private persons is adjudicated by the government itself. The evolution of common law went far beyond the ad hoc choice of an arbiter to arrangements that let parties know in advance how disagreements would be resolved. Disputes are inevitable: dispute resolution methods are necessary, and do evolve.

5. Sanctions for violators. Naturally, those found liable by arbiters or, worse, those who declare themselves “outlaws” by refusing any third party arbitration may need to be encouraged to comply by proportional sanctions. Common law anarchists emphasize the value of non-violent enforcement through ostracism and boycott, most effective against those who are part of the local community, but recognize that some cases may require force against violators. Clearly, the arsonist may need to be restrained physically to protect the forest. Still, when local acceptance and monitoring of rules is strong, violations are rare, usually accidental, and typically resolved without the need for violence.


Written by Less

June 12, 2012 at 4:09 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

2 Responses

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  1. I would just point out that there might be some confusion with terminology regarding the term ‘private property’. Both Mises and Hayek would include the kind property regimes described as private property. Mises describes his notion of property in a chapter in ‘Socialism’ where his main definition of property is de-facto control over use, and where socialized or collective property is de-facto control goods in the hands of a single directing society wide organization, private property the opposite. Hayek too thought of property in similar terms. He wrote that he did not like the term ‘private property’ preferring ‘several property’ which is more suggestive of separated control and responsibility among different groups. The key characteristic of it being “different individuals or sub-groups to pursue distinct aims, guided by their differing knowledge and skills”(The Fatal Conceit p30), rather then purely private control.

    This is why some Austrians are so enthusiastic about Ostrom while still balking at the suggestion that her work is somehow a strike against private property.

    Nicholas Panayi

    November 17, 2012 at 9:44 am

  2. No, argument, Nicholas: I think that many of the disputes between the different varieties of anarchists about property depend on having different views of the meaning of the word. I tried to address this in my “Is Property Theft?” piece. And, as you noted, Pete Boettke and other Austrian economists have long been fans of Ostrom’s work.


    November 17, 2012 at 5:45 pm

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