Much of what government does is based on the premise that people can’t do things for themselves. So government must do it for them. More often than not, the result is a ham-handed, bumbling, one-size-fits-all approach that leaves the intended beneficiaries worse off. Of course, this resulting failure is never blamed on the political approach — on the contrary, failure is taken to mean the government solution was not extravagant enough.
We who have confidence in what free people can achieve have long believed that government should not venture beyond its narrow sphere of providing physical security. It should not attempt to cure every social ill. So it’s good to learn that serious scholars have demonstrated that our intuitions are right. Free people, given the chance, solve what many “experts” think are problems that require state intervention.
For that reason, Elinor Ostrom’s winning of the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences ought to kindle a new interest in freedom. (See my earlier column here.)
Ostrom made her mark through field studies that show people solving one of the more vexing problems: efficient management of a common-pool resource (CPR), such as a pasture or fishery. With an unowned “commons,” each individual has an incentive to get the most out of it without putting anything back.
If I take fish from a common fishing area, I benefit completely from those fish. But if I make an investment to increase the future number of fish, others benefit, too. So why should I risk making the investment? I’ll wait for others to do it. But everyone else faces the same free-rider incentive. So we end up with a depleted resource and what Garrett Harden called “the tragedy of the commons.”
Except, says Ostrom, we often don’t. There is also an “opportunity of the commons.” While most politicians conclude that, depending on the resource, efficient management requires either privatization or government ownership, Ostrom finds examples of a third way: “self-organizing forms of collective action,” as she put it in an interview a few years ago. Her message is to be wary of government promises.
“Field studies in all parts of the world have found that local groups of resource users, sometimes by themselves and sometimes with the assistance of external actors, have created a wide diversity of institutional arrangements for cooperating with common-pool resources.”
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