Elinor Ostrom and the Power of the Individual

Warren Kinston 16. June 2012 10:00

Elinor Ostrom asked the question: How do you get social problems fixed?  Through the power of government?  Wrong.  Through the power of the individual?  Right.

power of the individual -  elinor ostrom

But don't we want government to fix things?  We may: but that is often abdicating our responsibility—especially when our eyes show us that political intrusion only makes things worse, wastes money, and disrupts our freedom.  And it saps our own power.  The power that we each have as individuals.

Don't social solutions need the coercive imposition of organization?  No.  They can be based on intelligent and cooperative effort by those most deeply involved.  Harnessing the power of the individual is not an option for politicians, but it is for us!

Don't be negative.  People are not at the mercy of their own egotistic drives, nor helpless in the face of others who control social power and wealth.  Not at all.  The reason is that the ultimate power and the source of wealth lies inside every person: in willingness, in determination, in talents, in commitment, in creativity.  None of that can be commanded by government.  None of that can be bought in the marketplace.  Nor, if you are into selling your soul, can you retain your self's value when you trade it away and become an instrument.

One person who saw this more clearly than most was Elinor Ostrom.  It's worth reading her obituary to appreciate the quality of person she was.  An academic political economist who was utterly unlike your typical economist or political scientist.  She had a profound appreciation of what people can achieve if you just allow them the opportunity.  For that, she won the Nobel Prize in 2009—the only woman ever to do so in economics—almost a quarter of a century after her work.  I guess it then became possible to recognize the work because the current destruction being wreaked by governments renders her observations palatable, even fashionable.  (Nothing seems more a matter of fashion than Nobel prizes!)

The current belief that only government can solve problems hides the reality that governments' primary ability is to create problems.  She saw that government does so in two ways: over-simplifying issues and bureaucratizing solutions. 

Elinor Ostrom did not shrink from recognizing that every person, every community, every state, every situation is unique.  Bureaucratic rules take no notice of local realities, of individual differences, of personal capabilities.  They can't.  They are designed to dehumanize.  And, boy, do they do a good job of that.  Bureaucracy has become the most prominent form of evil (i.e. lesser good masquerading as your good) in society today: it's filled the social gap left by the churches, following their unmasking during the 18th Century Enlightenment.

Just as organizations often operate best via polyarchy rather than hierarchy, so societies often function best via polycentric governance.  In both cases, you just need to recognize something very simple and blindingly obvious.  Every level in a complex system experiences (and suffers) any general problem in its own unique fashion.  It has its own unique perspectives on its own unique issues related to that problem, and it possesses its own unique ability to develop unique viable solutions.  This awareness was the basis of Ostrom's 1990 book: Governing the Commons

Elinor also understood that disciplines cut up reality in an unrealistic fashion so collective action and practical methods never emerge from them.  She saw with penetrating clarity that social and ecological problems were systemic in nature.  So simplistic rational solutions (of the "A causes B" or "C solves D" variety) beloved of academics and politicians could never work.  Her latest book deals with harm caused by feudal structures and supports the insights that are being systematized within the THEE-Online Project (TOP).

For such a radical scholar, always perceived as being outside the mainstream, I was surprised to discover that she served on boards of numerous professional and societal organizations, as well as making editorial contributions to nearly two dozen journals.  Her modesty, good nature and wisdom must have stood her in good stead.  Fortunately, her way of thinking is being disseminated by her students and by scholars she influenced around the world. 

I'm sure there are others with Elinor Ostrom's spirit in academia.  Stand up.  Speak out.  Join TOP now and help formulate your knowledge and strengthen the process of emancipation.

Recognize the power of each individual.

Harness your power and the power of others in your own way.



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Warren Kinston is the creator of the THEE-Online website as an open forum for the further discovery and development of THEE. He writes this blog as an escape valve for the excitement and frustrations of the work. More info here.

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