Apart from issuing my now-annual October lament that Armen Alchian and Gordon Tullock still do not have Nobel Prizes, I applaud this year’s selection of Elinor Ostrom and Oliver Williamson. Williamson’s 1985 book The Economic Institutions of Capitalism remains a classic that repays careful study, even in 2009. And Ostrom’s work on how people often solve public-goods problems voluntarily is too often overlooked — until today, that is!
The main lesson is that common property is often managed on the basis of rules and procedures that have evolved over long periods of time. As a result they are more adequate and subtle than outsiders — both politicians and social scientists — have tended to realize. Beyond showing that self-governance can be feasible and successful, Ostrom also elucidates the key features of successful governance. One instance is that active participation of users in creating and enforcing rules appears to be essential. Rules that are imposed from the outside or unilaterally dictated by powerful insiders have less legitimacy and are more likely to be violated. Likewise, monitoring and enforcement work better when conducted by insiders than by outsiders. These principles are in stark contrast to the common view that monitoring and sanctioning are the responsibility of the state and should be conducted by public employees.