L e v e l - 7

Tools For A New Political Economy

Elinor Ostrom’s Common Pool Resource Management Design Principles


(Excerpted from
The Goldilocks Zone of Integral Liberty)

Possession without Ownership, and Ownership without Possession

The concept of private property is an irrational, animalistic impulse that, at best, frustrates the mutual benefits of liberty in a cooperative society, and, at worst, progressively undermines individual sovereignty over time across all of that society. In order to achieve the subjective experience of liberty in a universal way, it seems clear that one of our primary intersubjective agreements be that private property and individualistic concepts of ownership attenuate – along with all systems that rely upon them – and that the advantages of common property and systems inspired by horizontal collectivism increase in their stead. This trajectory is also echoed by the unitive principle of love, which encourages us to rise above the I/Me/Mine acquisitiveness of immature moral orientations, and toward more generous, charitable and egalitarian standards of interaction. But how can we know what those concepts and systems will look like in the real world…?

Thankfully, once again this work has already been substantively initiated. Elinor Ostrom devoted much of her professional life to studying organically occurring common pool resource management and the advantages of polycentric governance. Through extensive fieldwork and cross-cultural comparisons, she uncovered a consistent set of self-organizing principles that had developed around sustainable natural resource access and utilization in several communities – and which soundly contradicted Garret Hardin’s “tragedy of the commons” being a foregone conclusion. As described in
Collective Action, the Commons, and Multiple Methods of Practice (2010, p.99):

“Ostrom finally dropped the idea of identifying the specific rules that tended to generate success. She moved up a level in generality to try to understand broader institutional regularities among the systems that were sustained over a long period of time. The concept of ‘design principle’ seemed an apt characterization of the regularities derived from this perspective. These regularities were not design principles in the sense that the irrigators, fishers, forest dwellers, and others who had invented and sustained successful common-property regimes over several centuries had these principles overtly in their minds. The effort was to identify the core underlying lessons that one could draw out from the cases of long-sustained regimes, and then to compare these successes with the failures to assess whether the failures were characterized by the same features.”

In 1990, Ostrom offered eight of these successful design principles for consideration in further research in her field. Over the ensuing years, dozens of follow-up studies were performed to empirically validate what Ostrom had proposed. In 2010, Michael Cox, Gwen Arnold and Sergio Tomás performed a detailed meta-analysis of 91 such studies in “A Review of Design Principles for Community-based Natural Resource Management.” What they found generally conformed to Ostrom’s design principles, though they also chose to expand on the original eight for greater clarification and specificity. Here is that result (Table 4, p. 38):


1A -
User boundaries: Boundaries between legitimate users and nonusers must be clearly defined.
1B -
Resource boundaries: Clear boundaries are present that define a resource system and separate it from the larger biophysical environment.
2A - Congruence with local conditions: Appropriation and provision rules are congruent with local social and environmental conditions.
2B - Appropriation and provision: The benefits obtained by users from a common-pool resource (CPR), as determined by appropriation rules, are proportional to the amount of inputs required in the form of labor, material, or money, as determined by provision rules.
3 - Collective-choice arrangements: Most individuals affected by the operational rules can participate in modifying the operational rules.
4A - Monitoring users: Monitors who are accountable to the users monitor the appropriation and provision levels of the users.
4B - Monitoring the resource: Monitors who are accountable to the users monitor the condition of the resource.
5 -
Graduated sanctions: Appropriators who violate operational rules are likely to be assessed graduated sanctions (depending on the seriousness and the context of the offense) by other appropriators, by officials accountable to the 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.
8 - Nested enterprises: Appropriation, provision, monitoring, enforcement, conflict resolution, and governance activities are organized in multiple layers of nested enterprises.

Ostrom had carefully documented that these self-organizing resource management schemas were community-synthesized approaches that did not rely on private ownership on the one hand, or government institutions on the other. At their core, Ostrom noted that communication, relationship and trust among individuals were extremely beneficial ingredients, and that without these factors, noncooperation and resource exhaustion were much more prevalent. At the same time, she frequently reiterated during her career that there is seldom a “one size fits all” solution to all resource management challenges, and thus she frequently turned to polycentric governance approaches to any complex economic system.

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