An Ostrom Reader

Lexington Press has recently finished publishing a four volume collection of the work of Elinor Ostrom and her husband Vincent–before that I do not believe the work has been gathered anyplace easily accessible. Since the price is astronomical–though well worth it for the serious scholar or scholarly library, I’m sure–I’d love to have a single-volume reader that collects the most important pieces, while perhaps leaving some of the more detail-oriented empirical and modeling work behind.

Perhaps one reason no such “Portable Ostrom” collection exists is that her work has been widely pirated online–claimed by the commons if you will–a fact that made the links below easier to find. Here are some things I might include in such a reader:

Ostrom frequently plagiarized herself and many of the links above have repeated passages and arguments. She thought that the public needed access to certain information about governance and skills at self-organization that we don’t teach in school, and that mainstream economics has actively undermined. She felt an obligation–which is now ours–to find some method for expressing these insights in less technical and more accessible ways.

Ice Cream Trucks and other Drug Dealers

There’s a lot to love in this New York Times profile of the Mister Softee/New York Ice Cream feud:

“Let me tell you about this business,” Adam Vega, a thickly muscled, heavily tattooed Mister Softee man who works the upper reaches of the Upper East Side and East Harlem, said on Wednesday. ” Every truck has a bat inside.”

Mr. Vega, 41, said that if he comes across a rival on his route, “I jump out and say, ‘Listen young man, this is my route, you gotta get out of there.”

Battle lines being drawn around ice cream sales in Midtown Manhattan is the kind of story meant for a Disney movie. Or maybe something R-rated, just for the bravado of “Every truck has a bat inside.”

I’ve always hated the local ice cream trucks, which are really trying to overcharge my for ice cream by training my daughter to have a melt down if I force her to eat store-bought ice cream instead of the overpriced stuff being advertised with a racist tune. (Well, maybe not. But still…) And now it turns out that they really are scary:

“If one of my drivers goes to Midtown, they’ll bring their trucks in and surround them — a bunch of guys,” said Peter Bouziotis, who runs the Softee depot in the Bronx, which covers Manhattan. “They’ll start banging on the windows.”

In various spots, I’ve seen this bad behavior tut-tutted and blamed on capitalism. But I suspect that this particular case (as well as most of the cases like it) actually has very little to do with capitalism and everything to do with the fundamentals of a non-capitalist economic system: common pool resource management.

This kind of social norm enforcement through threats and violence is a fairly common way of organizing property regimes when social or legal factors prevent privatization and legal exclusion. The technical definition of a common pool resource requires that the resource be rivalrous (able to be used up) but non-excludable (it can’t be locked away.) Tourists are both, even though they don’t think of themselves as resources or property.

The commons is precisely not “private property.” It’s commonly held. This caused many modern economists to argue that there was a “tragedy of the commons” whereby commonly-held goods would be used up rather than stewarded: each user would have an incentive to maximize–privatize–as much of the common-pool resource as possible, and so the commons would be ruined. These economists argued that only private property–and thus capitalism–could save the earth from overuse. Thus, for instance, we need to have “cap-and-trade” regimes so that corporations will maximize the profit to had from their privately-held shares of pollution, and this is supposed to be better than taxing pollution or simply regulating it away.

But in practice, the economists were wrong, as Elinor Ostrom and the Bloomington Workshop showed: commonly-held goods can be protected and managed as effectively as privately-held goods, and under conditions where private ownership is impossible to enforce. Unless the community is heavily disrupted (for instance by imperialism or police occupation) common-pool resources aren’t overused because users are understood to have a “share” by communal norms rather than legal title: exceeding one’s “share” is punished by the community of users.

In common-pool resource management systems, social norms take the the place of physical exclusions, and these norms include the ability to sanction–often physically sanction–potential interlopers. Crucially, this requires all sorts of negative emotions and actions that liberals such as myself don’t like: shame, resentment, contempt, us-v.-them tribalism, and even violence (on the small-scale “get the bat” variety or large-scale “revenge-killing” variety.) Common-pool resource management requires insiders to sanction poachers, and that’s what New York Ice Cream is doing here:

“From 34th to 60th Street, river to river, that’s ours,” he said on a recent afternoon, moments after handing a chocolate cone to a delighted-looking little boy. The vendor would not allow his name to be published for fear of losing his job.

Look at Maine lobstermen (cf especially Acheson’s The Lobster Gangs of Maine) or fisheries management in Taiwan or Chile or water rights on the West Coast and you see the same behaviors emerging organically. We also see it in drug distribution, it’s true. Recall Vanda Feldab-Brown’s work on illicit markets and violence:

It is not inherent that illegal economies, including the drug trade, are violent. There is great variation. But there are other factors apart from the quality of law enforcement, such as the central balances of power within the criminal market. Are there few groups that have developed a balance of power and defined territories, or many small groups that constitute a slim market of mom-and-pop types of enterprises that do not have the capacity to trigger or generate any violence?

Violence is a tool for exclusion. That sounds like a universal evil, but it’s not; it’s just as much a tool for the maintenance of contested common pool resource systems as it is a tool for more deeply problematic exclusions. My own preferences are for a violence-free world; but this of course just means that my taxes pay others to credibly threaten interlopers for me, as well as actively utilizing violence on my behalf.

Now, many people object when I use the explanation for the violence in the illicit economy that leads many of our students at the prison to be incarcerated. And indeed, I don’t think that all of their behavior is defensible in this way. But it’s important to understand just why illicit markets are violent: participants lack access to legal title to their businesses and to legal conflict resolution mechanisms. Largely because of racism and racist educational systems, they are unable to participate as equals in the legal labor market. They’re thus thrown into the grey and black market for labor, where they cannot access police and courts. Under those conditions, where none of their property is protected, participants in the illicit market are thrown back onto traditional conflict resolution mechanisms, which emphasizes honor and uses credible threats of violence to enforce property and contract rights.

If anything, New York Ice Cream is like the ideal of labor organizing; they were working for Mister Softee and tired of being exploited by licensing fees–payments to capitalists by laborers for the privilege of laboring–so they expropriated the means of production and locked the bosses out of the factory, that is, out of Midtown. Then, they made life difficult for the scabs:

The rift between New York Ice Cream and Mister Softee goes back to around 2013. According to court documents, Mr. Tsirkos held at least a dozen Softee franchises at the time, mostly in Midtown. Several of his drivers said that he was upset at high franchise fees and inflated prices for supplies. So he took his trucks (they are owned by individuals, not Mister Softee), added sprinkles and a waffle cone to the logo, and struck out on his own….

Ironically, the one place we don’t see poachers sanctioned is in heavily-policed high-oversight free-market property regimes (aka capitalism) because that’s where the rich are able to control things using rules and courts instead of social solidarity. In those situations, they often use the ideology of fair competition to force insiders to compete with poachers and scabs.

To be clear, I’m not endorsing drug markets, or even beating up your food truck competitors. But I find it strange when ordinary human behavior–often the laudatory kind that is responding to a larger abuse of power with small-scale violence–is pathologized by my fellow liberals who recognize the small-scale violence but ignore the larger abuses.

New York Ice Cream’s drivers have bats; Mister Softee’s drivers have been slashing tires, making death threats, and now the owners have the court system extracting six-figure judgments from the people doing the work and giving it to the people who hold the private right to the intellectual property:

Mr. Tsirkos has been ordered to compensate Mister Softee for his misdeeds. Last week, a federal judge ordered him to pay Softee $287,858.44 in lawyers’ fees, bringing the total he owes to over $767,000. (So far, Mister Softee’s lawyers say, Mr. Tsirkos has parted with only $2,426.)

So my expectation is that this short-lived Paris Commune of frozen dessert distribution will soon come to an end.

The Symmetry of Rival and Anti-Rival Goods

In DC over the last few days, it was frequently the case that the side-walks were cleared and the roads were not. Yet the roads are plowed by paid contractors driving massive machines while the sidewalks are usually shoveled by residents working for free (or neighbors paid by the residents individually.) What gives? Why do the paid, centrally managed snow removal contractors work so much slower than the the ordinary, non-professional residents?

Put another way, why was I able to convince my neighbors we could (and should) shovel our street out when the plows didn’t come? When they realized that others were doing it, they realized that rather than clear out the whole street, they’d just need to do their small part. They were even willing to shovel the few stretches of homes whose owners didn’t join us, because we couldn’t traverse that territory without helping the slackers.

I’d argue that this is a classic case of common pool resource management. But a shoveled sidewalk is a strange sort of common pool resource: it’s not like fisheries or irrigation where the more one person uses the resource, the less there is for others. That is, it’s not precisely “rivalrous,” one of two conditions required for a common-pool resource to flourish.  In fact, the more people shovel their sidewalks, the better off each individual with a shoveled sidewalk is. This is what economists call “anti-rivalry” and is frequently linked to network effects: the more people use email or Facebook, the more useful email or Facebook are.

Types of Goods

The other condition for a common-pool resource is that the resource must be “non-excludable.” Shoveled parking spaces in DC are frequently protected in this way: a chair or a trash can signals that by dint of shoveling the spot it has become my exclusive property for the duration of the snow.

saved parking

Parking spots are excludable (even if only through threats) and they’re rival: only one of us can park there at a time. Thus, the standard matrix analysis calls them private goods. This is tricky: the street below the snow was a public good, usually, but the act of shoveling seems to give someone the sense that they have a private ownership interest in it. (I mixed my labor with it!) Yet there’s never enough parking spots unless we share them, and short-term visitors are in an especially difficult situation.

You’d think that rivalry and anti-rivalry would be as opposed as that “anti” suggests. But from the perspective of the structures of ownership and distribution, it does seem like anti-rival goods work on the same model as other common pool resources that are rival: thus Lawrence Lessig used anti-rivalry to argue for free open source software, which is how much of the backbone software of the internet was developed. Rather than apportioning a scarce resource, an anti-rival network has to distribute it as widely as possible to realize maximal benefits:

It’s not just that code is non-rival; it’s that code in particular, and (at least some) knowledge in general, is, as [Steven] Weber calls it, ‘anti-rival’. I am not only not harmed when you share an anti-rival good: I benefit.

This continues to produce the standard insider/outside dynamic of a common-pool resource management system, but replaces exclusivity with evangelism. The plow system is just another version of what Elinor Ostrom called “crowding out”:

Citizens are effectively told that they should be passive observers in the process of design and implementation of effective public policy. The role of citizenship is reduced to voting every few years between competing teams of political leaders. Citizens are then supposed to sit back and leave the driving of the political system to the experts hired by these political leaders.

Some of what makes anti-rival goods work is peer pressure: when we were shoveling the street, a few parents came out and confessed apologetically that they couldn’t leave their children alone to come help. The tone of their apologies suggested that there was some guilt involved. But a lot of it was that a simply impossible job became imaginable if each neighbor was able to see that they’d personally benefit: as the shoveled portion of the street expanded, the neighbors in the middle of the block came outside to shovel still farther, since they’d only have a little bit more to do to enjoy the benefits.

The plows came Wednesday afternoon and expanded our cleared lanes. But we had already escaped!

Mead Quote

What can small groups do?

I’ve just returned from two weeks at the Tufts Summer Institute of Civic Studies, which culminated in a conference attended by 117 researchers, practitioners, philanthropists, and public officials interested in expanding the role of citizens in our democracy. Peter Levine summed up the conference here:

The Frontiers conference was modeled on No Better Time, a meeting held in 2009 at University of New Hampshire. The atmosphere then was optimistic, to say the least. Even the participants who had not voted for Barack Obama were encouraged by the outpouring of civic activism in 2008 and the expansion of relevant federal programs such as AmeriCorps. We talked then about how we would flourish as soon as the recession ended.

Now is not “no better time.” During our conference itself, the headlines screamed that a murderous racist had hunted and killed more than 90 children in one of the world’s safest and strongest democracies; the Speaker of the House walked out on the President of the United States during negotiations to save the full faith and credit of the Republic while the economy continues to sag; and the whole country baked in heat that seemed to portend the climate we will leave to our children. We conference organizers had hoped to engender optimism, hope, and confidence in our field. I am not sure we succeeded, or if that goal was possible.

He goes on to point out that many of us have a clear bias towards deliberative forms of participation, but that we are increasingly discovering evidence for a role for citizens in governance. Elinor Ostrom’s work (for which she won a Nobel Prize) is one example of this, and indeed during the two-week institute we frequently returned to the role her research could play. I’m struck in particular by an essay she wrote for Scandanvian Political Studies, “Crowding Out Citizenship.” She argues that current public policy is based on a theory of collective inaction, which assumes that most citizens are rational actors unable to sacrifice their individual self-interest in pursuit of the public good. Moreover, collective inaction theories assume that citizens lack sufficient knowledge to design appropriate institutions on their own, so this work must be left up to experts.

The title alone captures many of my own concerns with the current emphasis on steering the bureaucracy to justly and efficiently manage our political economy: there’s too little room for citizens in the public sphere because we have too much evidence of the ways their prejudices and self-interest can hamper effective governance. As she puts it:

Citizens are effectively told that they should be passive observers in the process of design and implementation of effective public policy. The role of citizenship is reduced to voting every few years between competing teams of political leaders. Citizens are then supposed to sit back and leave the driving of the political system to the experts hired by these political leaders.

Indeed, this is such a problem that we frequently see politicians from both parties rallying around slogans like “elections should have consequences” as they struggle to redirect entrenched and largely autonomous agencies in their efforts to change the status quo. By centralizing institutional design and reserving meaningful contributions for experts, we will tend to “crowd out” the motivations that make it possible for citizens to act in pro-social and collaborative ways:

External interventions crowd out intrinsic motivation if the individuals affected perceive them to be controlling. In that case, both self-determination and self-esteem suffer, and the individuals react by reducing their intrinsic motivation in the activity controlled.

Policies enacted on the basis of rational choice thus have a tendency to produce the kinds of self-interested and and ignorant actors that they assume, a self-fulfilling prophecy that disables citizens and de-democratizes communities. But Ostrom’s research makes two carefully researched and specific interventions into current public debates:

  1. Collective inaction theories are at odds with contemporary empirical social science. Pro-social and cooperative attitudes are rampant, while “rule-following punishers” internalize norms and police compliance from others with their own resources.
  2. Local communities around the world manage common pool resources using polycentric systems of semiautonomous governance rather than centralized planning and control.

The study of civic agency aims to reverse the “crowding out” effect. Instead, local self-managed communities arrange to “crowd in” pro-social attitudes and expertise. Our knowledge and power as citizens is weakest when external interventions render us irrelevant. Unsurprisingly, the opposite is also true: when we are forced to manage our affairs together, we develop the wisdom and the strength to do so.

Inspired in part by Peter Levine’s post here:

Paying attention to the effects of small-group politics seems naive, since big, impersonal social forces probably have more impact on outcomes. Academic “realism” marginalizes human agency. But small-group politics is morally important–it’s what we should do. It’s also more significant than the “realists” believe, although less powerful than Margaret Mead implied.