21. “Review of Ostrom’s Governing the Commons”


Abstract: The lynchpin perhaps even the very foundation of free market environmentalism is the tragedy of the commons. If we do not have private property rights in land, endangered animal species, fish, trees, etc., then there will be a real danger, as the left wing environmentalists charge, of extinction of these resources. Prof. Eleanor Ostrom attempts to show that this is not so; that private property rights are not at all needed if we are to escape environmental degradation of this sort. The present essay is not so much book review as it is an attempt to refute Ostrom, and thereby defend private property rights. In her view, communal rights will suffice; private property is not needed. My claim is that she is incapable of properly distinguishing between stockholders, or partnerships, or groups of people who together own private property, on the one hand, from, on the other hand, communal ownership.


  1. Why is W. Block so harsh on E. Ostrom’s work? After all, she is using methodological individualism to explain her main ideas. He is doing no good to Keynes either, but that is another matter. All she (Ostrom) is saying is that in certain cases individuals can credibly commit (fear of punishment and similar) not to cheat. What is needed for this is the right kind of institutions to be in place (ones that enable monitoring, punishing, decision making). I’m not a hard core libertarian but the idea that free individuals (after some amount of time needed to get used to one another) are able to make decisions that affect each of them in a way that makes none of them worse off doesn’t contradict libertarianism. Actually I believe that it should be at the core of it and it would reflect the enlightened nature of individuals that would make a better society.

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