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Cooking the Books 1: This year’s Nobel Prize for Economics

Every year the Bank of Sweden awards a prize to some economist, often called the Nobel Prize for Economics even though it wasn’t established by the old merchant of death himself. It has in fact only been going since 1968. Usually the prize goes to some obscure economist for work on some obscure aspect of the market economy. Sometimes it goes to a big name such as the Keynesian Paul Samuelson (1970) or the Monetarist Milton Friedman (1976). Even the mad marketeer Baron von Hayek got one, in 1974.

Very occasionally it goes to someone who has done some interesting work, as when in 1998 it went to Amartya Sen who had shown that famines were caused by a collapse in legal access to food (via money or direct production) and not by any actual shortage of food or overpopulation. This year, too, it has gone to someone whose work sounds interesting – Elinor Ostrom whose 1990 book Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action refuted the so-called “Tragedy of the Commons” parable that is often used to try to show that socialism wouldn’t work.

In 1968 an American biologist Garrett Hardin conceived of a parable to explain why, in his view, common ownership was no solution to the environmental crisis and why in fact it would only make matters worse. Called “The Tragedy of the Commons”, his parable went like this: assume a pasture to which all herdsmen have free access to graze their cattle; in these circumstances each herdsman would try to keep as many cattle as possible on the commons and, in the end, its carrying capacity would be exceeded, resulting in environmental degradation.

Hardin’s parable was completely unhistorical. Wherever commons have existed there also existed rules governing their use, sometimes in the form of traditions, sometimes in the form of arrangements for decision-making in common, which precluded such overgrazing and other threats to the long-term sustainability of the system.

One of the conclusions that governments drew from Hardin’s armchair theorising was that in existing cases where producers had rights of access to a “common-pool resource” the solution was either to privatise the resource or to subject the producers to outside control via quotas, fines and other restrictions. Ostrom took the trouble to study various common property arrangements some of which had lasted for centuries, including grazing pastures in Switzerland, forests in Japan, and irrigation systems in Spain and the Philippines.

According to The Times (13 October),

“Based on numerous studies of user-managed fish stocks, pastures, woods, lakes and groundwater basins, she asserts that resource users frequently develop sophisticated mechanisms for decision-making and rule enforcement to handle conflicts of interest”.

In other words, common ownership did not necessarily have to lead to resource depletion as predicted by Hardin and trumpeted by opponents of socialism. The cases Ostrom examined were not socialism as the common owners were private producers. In socialism the producers, the immediate users of the common resources, would not be trying to make an independent living for themselves but would be carrying out a particular function on behalf of the community in a social context where the aim of production would be to satisfy needs on a sustainable basis. But the rules they would draw up for the use of the grazing land, forests, fishing grounds and the like would be similar to those in the cases she studied.