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Ostrom: Governing the commons

Disclaimer. Don't rely on these old notes in lieu of reading the literature, but they can jog your memory. As a grad student long ago, my peers and I collaborated to write and exchange summaries of political science research. I posted them to a wiki-style website. "Wikisum" is now dead but archived here. I cannot vouch for these notes' accuracy, nor can I say who wrote them.

Ostrom. 1990. Governing the commons. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


The point of this chapter is to examine market-based (non-governmental) solutions to the tragedy of the commons, yet most of these solutions seem to be governmental. The people get together, they establish some social contract, and they elect somebody from within their group to monitor, or make regulations, and so on. True, this agreement is technically "non-governmental" in that it is not administered by the formal government that we like to think of, but it seems to me that they are simply establishing a local representative government.

Seven design principles common to the four cases (these are quoted; Ostrom specifies that she's not yet persuaded that these are 7 necessary conditions for the establishment of a successful regime to manage common pool resources, but that she thinks further research might show that [or something similar] to be the case):

  1. Clearly defined boundaries: Individuals or households who have rights to withdraw resource units from the CPR must be clearly defined, as must the boundaries of the CPR itself.
  2. Congruence between appropriation and provision rules and local conditions: Appropriation rules restricting time, place, technology, and/or quantity of resource units are related to local conditions and to provision rules requiring labor, material, andlor money.
  3. Collective-choice arrangements: Most individuals affected by the operational rules can participate in modifying the operational rules.
  4. Monitoring: Monitors, who actively audit CPR conditions and appropriator behavior, are accountable to the appropriators or are the appropriators.
  5. Graduated sanctions: Appropriarors who violate operational rules are likely to be assessed graduated sanctions (depending on the seriousness and context of the offense) by other appropriators, by officials accountable to these appropriators, or by both.
  6. Conflict-resolution mechanisms: Appropriators and their officials have rapid access to low-cost local arenas to resolve conflicts among appropriators or between appropriators and officials.
  7. Minimal recognition of rights to organize: The rights of appropriators to devise their own institutions are not challenged by external governmental authorities.

For CPRs that are parts of a larger system:

Research on similar subjects


Ostrom, Elinor (author)EconomicsTragedy of the CommonsInstitutionsOrigins of InstitutionsCoordinationIncentives in Market Exchange

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