Nobel Laureate Elinor Ostrom Made History

From The Progressive:

By Amitabh Pal
June 14, 2012

Elinor Ostrom, who passed away on June 12 from pancreatic cancer, made history by becoming the first and only woman to win the Nobel Prize in Economics. Her research provided acute insights into how the world really worked. I was fortunate to interview her two years ago at Indiana University (where she taught for decades), just months after she was awarded the Nobel.

“I’ve been interested in democratic governance at the very base,” she told me. She focused on “the capabilities of people at the smaller scale: from schools and parks to fisheries and irrigation systems,” she said.

Ostrom made her name critiquing a concept in the social sciences called the “tragedy of the commons.” This concept assumes that common property will inevitably be overused and degraded in the absence of private ownership. Not necessarily so, Ostrom said. Through her study of communally owned property in places ranging from Southern California and coastal Maine to Nepal and Kenya, she demonstrated that democratically managed commons could be sustainably used and preserved.

At the same time, Ostrom was conscious of libertarians co-opting her work by arguing that it showed the lack of need for any large-scale governance.

“The important thing about large-scale is the court system,” she said. “For example, you would not have civil rights for people of black origin in the United States but for a federal court system and also the courage of Martin Luther King and others.”

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