On Monday, Elinor Ostrom became the first woman to win a Nobel Prize in economic science for her empirical research on how commons are managed. According to the NY Times:
Ostrom’s work focuses on the commons, such as how pools of users manage natural resources as common property. The traditional view is that common ownership results in excessive exploitation of resources — the so-called tragedy of the commons that occurs when fishermen overfish a common pond, for example. The proposed solution is usually to make users bear the external costs of their utilization by privatizing the resource or imposing government regulations such as taxes or quotas.
Ecologist Garrett Hardin coined the phrase "tragedy of the commons" in a 1968 Science article of that name. Ostrom, perhaps best known for her landmark book Governing the Commons, has convincingly argued that,
There are many cases around the world in which common property is “surprisingly well-managed.” In these cases commons users “create and enforce rules that mitigate overexploitation” without having to resort to privatization and government regulation.
Ostrom's award is getting the attention it deserves, but the deeper significance may be lost in the understandable excitement about her being the first woman to win in the economic science category. And few if any see the connection between Ostrom and Obama’s Nobel awards. It's obscured by categories and an intense but boring debate about whether Obama deserved his Nobel.
There's something else going on that's a lot more exciting.
Ostrom is part of a intellectual vanguard that's elaborating a new understanding of human nature and society. Their research is obsoleting a world view underpinned by ideas from the Enlightenment and classical economics, which much of the developed world's government, economic policy, and culture are based. At the core of the old world view is the idea that society is merely a collection of atomized individuals making rational, self-interested choices.
This is an every-man-for-himself vision of society. If you create governments and economies based on the idea that people are only self-interested, which is arguably what happened in the West, then naturally this vision will come vividly to life. Sometimes I think of the developed world as one gigantic reality TV show where only one person wins - Survivor writ large. This zero sum mindset is part and parcel of what is driving us toward a climate disaster, not to mention creating a way of life that's profoundly small hearted and disempowering. We need a win-win set of ideas that draws us back from the brink. And fosters our magnanimity and ability to work together.
Ostrom and Obama's awards are beacons that lead the way.
Ostrom’s work and that of economist Yochai Benkler, who in July gave a speech entitled After Selfishness when accepting an endowed chair at Harvard’s Berkman Center, paint a different picture of society, along with many others in the social sciences. In the ascendant worldview, society is composed of individuals that are connected and influence each other, who do not always make rational or self-interest choices, and who will collaborate for the common good without monetary reward. In Benkler’s speech, he points to the importance of expectations, that to motivate people to share, you have to make sharing an explicit part of the game. Context matters.
In this way, I see a link between Ostrom and Obama’s award. Sure, Obama may need to grow into the award as Desmond Tutu did, but his rhetoric is Ostrom-like and his organizing is Benkler-like. His rhetoric is fired by a vision of an international civic commons shared by everybody, not by partisan or international competition. His campaign was peer-produced as are efforts to rebuild the US through service, which he has called Americans to do through United We Serve. He did not promise to save the US in his campaign, instead he said "we [US citizens] are the ones we’ve been waiting for” thus creating a new context, one where working together for the common good is an explicit part of the game. His Nobel acceptance speech urged nations of the world to establish an era of engagement, which is international version of the same call to action.
Ostrom and Benkler’s ideas help underpin an emerging worldview that is the basis for a new society, as was Enlightenment thinking and classical economics in their day. Obama embodies and heralds this new worldview. A new generation of policy, culture, and enterprise makers are taking these new ideas - and way of being - and moving the developed world from a Survivor to a Wikipedia society, one where we all win the game instead of just a few.
These awards also point to a third way to organize economic life, one that is democratic rather than statist or corporatist. Instead of oscillating as we did in the 20th century between big government and free market policies, we now have a third option – the commons as an organizing model of economic life. Ostrom’s work shows that neither government regulation nor privatization are needed to manage common property. Instead, what works best most of the time are committed citizens working at the local level to develop their own solutions to conflicts in resource use. Ostrom hopes her work is used to guide climate policy. Obama’s rhetoric helps create a context where citizen-managed commons can work at the global level - all of us doing our part in our communities to create a world and lives worth sharing.
In short, Ostrom and Obama's Nobel awards say to the world, yes we can.