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30 August 2010

Lee on Boettke on Ostrom, in reply to Bates

As has become my habit, I again blew way past the character maximum for blog comments. This is a response to Winton Bates' comment of 29 August, 2010 21:32 on this blog.

On first inspection of the above comment I was half wondering whether Lin Osrom was short for Elinor Ostrom, and to my delight it is! Elinor Ostrom's claim to fame seems to be at least a partial debunking of the 'tragedy of the commons' understanding of free and/or public goods, which in itself is enough to make her a hero of mine. If only I had a penny for every time my ideals have been whacked over the head with the wet noodle called 'tragedy of the commons' by some snarky libertarian. Another barometer of true brilliance is the impressive and diverse variety of groups and causes that seem to want to claim her as one of their own, or at least claim some measure of vindication in her findings for their own pet theories, and pet bodies of theory. Only a year or so post-Nobel, and she's right up there with Thomas Jefferson by that barometer. Laissez-faire types love her for demonstrating that central authority is not needed for optimal allocation, while commies like me celebrate her finding that apparently property rights aren't needed either. What isn't exactly clear to me is what exactly is needed, and what exactly is the range of problems to which these group dynamics are applicable. I need to read up on these things.

As for this Peter Boettke, the name looked familiar, and of course following the link burned the name "George Mason University - Department of Economics" onto my retinas. Just day before yesterday one of the blogs I subscribe to posted a link to this claim that GMU Econ is essentially a wholly-owned subsidiary of the David H. Koch Foundation.

Of course, in the spirit of fairness, I read all 23 pages, at least twice.

As for Dr. Boettke's thesis that the only reasonable regulation is self regulation, I find it interesting that he finds Dr. Ostrom's findings to include "informal, and sometimes
even tacit, rules that communities live by." This sounds to me like neither government regulation nor self-regulation, but social norms. So, perhaps we should rejoice in the triumph of the normative over the positive; calling into question another mainstream economics dictum with which my most cherished beliefs have been pummeled many times.

As for the beekeepers and apple growers, maybe the jury is still out on that. Just last night David Suzuki's TV show was looking into the phenomenon of colony collapse disorder that has been decimating the honeybee population. It seems that bottling up, 'mixing labor with' and commoditizing the 'service of nature' that is pollination has had the effect of bringing the bees, like the other livestock, into the world of monoculture, which may be a contributing factor to CCD. In fairness, the show was inconclusive as to an exact cause, positing that the honeybee is facing so many stressors from so many sources that any one of these stressors could be the proverbial straw that broke the camel's back.

Here's a gem:

It is arguable, that not since Kenneth Boulding (see, e.g., Boettke and
Prychitko 1996) have we seen a social scientist allow their sheer curiosity
about the world to take them on such a methodological journey of so
many different approaches to get at the phenomena she wants to

Sounds to me like the everyday practice of anthropology. I'll probably file it as yet another example of mainstream economists being dismissive of the other social sciences.

All in all, the article read to me like a salvo of the standard talking points I have come to expect from 'Masonomists,' but I did learn something. I didn't know that Dr. Ostrom had cred in both public choice theory and political economy. Public choice theory is a discipline people of my ilk tend to dismiss as just another school of thought created in service to incumbent interests. Political economy, I always assumed, was the exact opposite; a discipline scuttled (for similarly mercenary reasons) in favor of economics as a science apart from politics. It seems obvious (or let's say intuitive) to me that all economic relationships (e.g. employer-employee, landlord-tenant, franchisor-franchisee, principal-agent, and yes, government-citizen) have a political (i.e. dominance-submission) dimension. I'm inclined to believe that the movement from political economy to economics is in service to the agenda of defining the political in the ultra-narrow terms of 'monopoly of the initiation of force,' while the invention of public choice theory is an attempt to make political science a branch of economics, in keeping with Steven Landsburg's project of making all sciences branches of economics through sophistic demonstrations that everything from particle interactions to evolutionary biology to matters of the heart (is nothing sacred?) are basically manifestations of market forces.

Snarky, but definitely food for thought, and much reading for me to catch up on.


Winton Bates said...

Thanks for posting that Lorraine. I was curious about whether your views on Ostrom would be positive -and you didn't disappoint me.

I'm still intending to write something on this myself. I'll have another look at what you have written before I do.

Peter Boettke said...

Lorraine and Winton,

I just came across this. I think you might also want to look at my book, Challenging Institutional Analysis and Development: The Bloomington School (Routledge, 2009) as well as the special issue of JEBO that I edited in honor of Lin and Vincent Ostrom. The New Palgrave Dictionary of Economics also has the biographical essay on Lin Ostrom by myself (and my coauthor on many of these projects dealing with Lin and Vincent and their students, Paul Aligica).

The essay under question was published in Public Choice, but it is based on a variety of other works and also many conversations with Lin and Vincent as well as study and teaching from their work for years. Aligica and I also have a paper that is forthcoming in Policy Studies Journal related to the two social philosophies of the Bloomington approach.


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