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Jewish World Review
Oct. 28, 2009 / 10 Mar-Cheshvan 5770
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
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."
She has studied, for example, self-governing irrigation systems in Nepal
and found successes never anticipated in the textbooks. "Irrigation
systems built and governed by the farmers themselves are on average in
better repair, deliver more water, and have higher agricultural
productivity than those provided and managed by a government agency. …
(F)armers craft their own rules, which frequently offset the perverse
incentives they face in their particular physical and cultural settings.
These rules may be almost invisible to outsiders. …"
In "Governing the Commons," she writes about self-governed commons in
Switzerland, Japan, the Philippines and elsewhere that date back
hundreds of years. For example, in the alpine village of Tobel,
Switzerland, herdsmen "tend village cattle on communally owned alpine
meadows" under rules of an association created in 1483. The rules govern
who has access to the grazing lands and how many cows a herdsman can
place there, preventing overgrazing. The cattle owners themselves run
the association and handle the monitoring. Sanctions are imposed for
violation of the rules, but compliance is high.
Don't mistake the association for government. Rather, it is a private
co-op designed for a narrow purpose. "All of the Swiss institutions used
to govern commonly owned alpine meadows have one obvious similarity
the appropriators themselves make all the major decisions about the use
of the CPR."
She found something similar in Japanese villages, where residents use
private property for some agricultural purposes and self-managed common
forests for others.
Solutions imposed by external authority were not necessary and
usually self-defeating: "Academics, aid donors, international
nongovernmental organizations, central governments, and local citizens
need to learn and relearn that no government can develop the full array
of knowledge, institutions and social capital needed to govern
development efficiently and sustainably. …"
How about that? Freedom works.
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