Arquivo da tag: Economia política

The Compelling Conclusion About Capitalism That Piketty Resists (Truthout)

Thursday, 26 June 2014 00:00

By Fred GuerinTruthout | Op-Ed

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Temporary, like sadness. Temporary, like capitalism. Temporary, like life. (Photo: Dominic Alves / Flickr)

The excesses of capitalism are not simply a question of bad management and a political unwillingness to properly regulate it by imposing the right sort of checks and balances, but symptoms of a fundamentally and irretrievably flawed system that tends toward destruction of human and other life.

The idea of capitalism as an expression of economic freedom that also secures moral and political freedom of thought, or the notion that “free-market” economies are guided by an impartial mechanism of supply and demand – an “invisible hand” to use Adam Smith’s metaphor – are both powerful indoctrinating notions. As such, they bear little resemblance to actual reality. Smith himself never used the word “capitalism,” preferring to call his economics a “system of natural liberty.” In fact, the inner logic of capitalism can be difficult to get hold of simply because there have been different configurations of capitalism throughout history. In its classic form, before the advent of corporations (when there was still an implicit sense of social responsibility, and insatiable greed was considered a vice), capitalism might have appeared less virulent. Additionally, there is reason to believe that capitalism unfolded differently in different countries with distinct political and legal frameworks.

“There is “capitalism” and then there is “really existing capitalism.” What then is ‘really existing capitalism?'”

All of these contingent factors are worthy of consideration in any assessment of capitalism. However, it is also reasonably clear that once we actually look at history, it is difficult not to conclude that pretty muchevery embodiment of capitalism – classical capitalism, oligarchic or corporate capitalism, casino capitalism, entrepreneurial capitalism – presuppose similar elements: private property, ownership of the means of production, notions of unlimited growth, the maximization of profit, using wealth to create wealth. They also all embody a form of instrumental rationality, the kind of rationality concerned with maximizing profits and minimizing costs. In its globalized corporate form, capitalism has been able to relentlessly realize this form of instrumental reasoning on a large scale – and thereby show itself as one of the most destructive and undemocratic economic system humans have ever come up with.

Unfortunately, neither propaganda nor abstract economic theory can help us to grasp this fact. The reason is primarily that the latter do not really speak to the false theories of human nature capitalism presupposes. Nor do many of them elaborate capitalism’s legitimating normative-moral or political origins. Most crucially, they are often silent regarding the devastating impact that it has had on the environment since it first emerged during the course of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. As Chomsky insightfully puts it, “There is “capitalism” and then there is “really existing capitalism.” What then is “really existing capitalism’?

Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century gives us a few clues, though not by any means, the whole picture. Replete with startling empirical evidence in the form of charts, graphs, informative statistics, mathematical-logical expressions and astute critical-historical analyses, Piketty’s work draws a number of sobering conclusions about the present dynamics of wealth and income distribution that exposes not merely the dark underside of capitalism but a central contradiction within it. Thus, Piketty concludes “. . . wealth accumulated in the past grows more rapidly than output and wages. This inequality expresses a fundamental logical contradiction. The entrepreneur inevitably tends to become a rentier, more and more dominant over those who own nothing but their labor. Once constituted, capital reproduces itself faster than output increases. The past devours the future.”

The past devours the future. But, what if the bizarre inverted logic of capitalism has always been its real point? What if, under the rubric of capitalism, the powerful elite are given permission to act as if it simply doesn’t matter whether their ever-expanding wealth might actually devour the future, or “wear the world out faster” to borrow a phrase from Orwell? Do they not often appear to live in an all-consuming present – get what you can for yourself right now, and don’t worry about others, or even about tomorrow? Moreover, is not such an attitude, sanctioned by capitalism, the reason why this particular economic system requires endless cycles of economic crisis?

Perhaps Piketty’s point is that if it doesn’t matter to the elite, it should at least matter to us. But if it does matter, then it is up to the rest of us – including experts like Piketty who grasp the reality of capitalism better than anyone else – to imagine real alternatives to such an economic system, to think outside of the present paradigm of endless development, profit maximization and disastrous austerity measures imposed on whole populations. Despite the apparently glaring “logical” contradiction within capitalism, Piketty still holds to the idea that it can be properly disciplined through a progressive annual tax on wealth. It is not the conclusion he should have reached given his thorough and prescient analysis.

Looking at the history of capitalism, it is difficult not to conclude that growing inequality expresses a fundamental property of and not a contradiction within capitalism.

Of course, Piketty is by no means alone in wanting to save capitalism from itself. Capitalism – no matter what its excesses, or how destructive it is for life or democracy – is invariably held as our default economic system, grudgingly acceded to even by popular left-oriented economists such as Paul Krugman, Nouriel Roubini or Joseph Stiglitz. As Chrystia Freeland unabashedly concludes in Plutocrats, The Rise of the New Global Super-Rich and the Fall of Everyone Else, despite all its faults, we continue to need capitalism because, “very much like democracy,” it is “the best system we’ve figured out so far.” [1] Thus, if capitalism appears to go wrong, this is not because it is grounded on a misreading of history, internal contradictions, false theories about nature or human nature, or misguided moral and political presuppositions. Rather, the excesses of capitalism are simply a question of “bad management’ and a political unwillingness to properly regulate it by imposing the right sort of checks and balances.

In fact, Piketty’s proposed wealth tax solution may do more to obscure than resolve the really existing contradictions of capitalism. Looking at the history of capitalism, it is difficult not to conclude that growing inequality expresses a fundamental property of  and not a contradiction within capitalism. Inequality is built into capitalism. If there is a contradiction here it is a material not a logical one. In other words, it is the contradiction between an economic system that is radically indifferent to the health and well-being of the planet as a whole versus the economic, moral and environmental obligation to preserve and sustain such health and well-being.

If I am right that the inner logic of capitalism inevitably leads to a hegemonic, macro-structural world-system of unequal human social, political and economic relations guided by elite greed that does not reflect the best interests of the majority of people, the common good or indeed the good of the planet itself, then Piketty’s assumption that we could ever regain control over an “endless inegalitarian spiral’ by imposing a progressive tax on capital seems, is at best, rather fanciful. A more fitting conclusion in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis and the efforts of the elite to profit from the latter would be to ask the question whether we should continue advocating for a capitalist system that glorifies profit over people or start thinking about how to reorganize our economy around common goods such as the health and well-being of our present world.

Instead, many contemporary economists repeatedly tell us that our only tenable alternative is to tame capitalist excess through regulative initiatives. This has been done before and it can be done again, the argument goes. Thus, it is claimed that we can and did rein-in or mitigate the severity of capitalist exploitation, and the massive wealth and income disparities that followed from it. However, it should now be abundantly clear that the internal and structural logic of exploitation, wealth-income disparities and the profit-oriented colonization of social and political relations can only be regulated for short periods. It can never be fundamentally altered. Indeed, as Piketty has persuasively argued, relentless exploitation, colonization and massive inequality were only temporarily pre-empted by a war economy and FDR’s regulatory initiatives. By the late 1970’s, the internal logic of capitalism had re-established its hegemonic status and all of the built-in excesses of the capitalist economic system once again became normalized and necessary.

What if . . . we are all conditioned to see the world in terms of individual economic self-interest rather than in terms of common human good or planetary limits, health and equilibrium?

What this tells us is that regulatory reform of capitalism will only be allowed for a brief period. In other words, to the extent that it can obscure or prevent us from perceiving the inner logic of a system of structured inequality, or distract us from the most deleterious effects of capitalism on the environment and on human health and well-being, minimal regulation may be deemed necessary by the elite for a short period of time. However, as Naomi Kleinhas convincingly argued, the “collective vertigo’ caused by wars, economic upheaval, environmental or political crisis, environmental disasters can also be exploited as the perfect means through which a capitalist system of greed takes over markets, amasses fabulous fortunes and bankrupts the wealth of the commons.

Perhaps the refusal to ask critical questions about the viability of capitalism might be explained by the fact that even today many economists still hold onto the mythic assumption that the “impartial” self-regulating market is no more than a theoretical expression of the “order of human nature” itself and not, after all, a product of powerful political and moneyed interests. This belief has distant origins in Thomas Hobbes fear-inspired mechanistic account of human beings who in their natural state are war-like and driven by self-interest. Not only does the latter perspective resonate in many manifestations of capitalist theory, it also underscores a desire to replicate in economic theory what nature apparently prescribes – a war-like disposition disciplined through competitive markets based on innate selfishness. But what if the incapacity to imagine alternatives is not because we are naturally selfish, but simply a function of the reality that in capitalist societies we are all conditioned to see the world in terms of individual economic self-interest rather than in terms of common human good or planetary limits, health and equilibrium?

This perfectly predictable inversion, where government becomes a handmaid to moneyed interest, is precisely the “logic of a capitalist system.”

Over time, the promotion of selfishness as a virtue not only changes the way we look at ourselves, it influences the way we relate to each other and to the planet itself. Instead of citizens who define themselves in relation to common goods, we are reduced, under the selfish orientation of capitalism, to aggregates of self-interested atomistic individuals encouraged to believe that we can continue a lifetime of limitless consumption. Those who are entirely left out of the consumer game – the increasing numbers of homeless, stateless refugees, destitute and imprisoned whose day-to-day life is taken up by the fight for mere survival – are the necessary residue of a global capitalist system.

From its inception, capitalist economic theory has pushed the idea that the market would only be able to regulate itself if it were not subject to external and coercive government interference or regulation. However, the reality is that capitalist accumulation was never actually severed from politics or government, but invariably parasitic upon it. It has always been intimately tied to publicly funded government tax-breaks and subsidies, to war, colonial-imperial expansion, and industrial ambitions. What happened is simply that massive capitalist accumulation was allowed to entirely invert the power relation between moneyed interests and government. Thus, an elite class of bankers, financiers and industrialists (eventually expressing itself through corporate ownership) have become so powerful, they are able to coerce governments and states to go along with whatever is in their minority interest. This perfectly predictable inversion, where government becomes a handmaid to moneyed interest, is precisely the “logic of a capitalist system,” which renders any suggestion of government imposed progressive taxation rather fantastical.

Related to this, faith in the promise of capitalism might also have to do with a kind of wilful blindness about the actual origins of capital. As Karl Polyanyi reminds us, many scholars and economists tenaciously hold to Adam Smith’s idea that the division of labor has always been based upon markets of some kind because our “propensity to barter, truck and exchange one thing for another” is simply ingrainedin the natural order of things. But, clearly we do not need capitalism – the privatizing of wealth and the socializing of costs – to show us how to barter, truck or trade goods. Indeed, capitalism is actually inimical to bartering or trading, precisely because it is driven by individual profit and monopolization, not by the fair exchange of goods. The FTA (Free Trade Agreements), NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement) and TPP (Trans-Pacific Partnership) are the awful modern exemplars here.

There is nothing impartial about early capitalism’s inextricable relation to colonialism, slavery or plunder for private gain.

Polyani quickly dispels Smith’s historical misreading of the division of labor as structured by capitalism by reminding us that up to Smith’s time such a propensity toward the individual pursuit of unfettered profit based on wage labor “had hardly shown up on a considerable scale in the life of any observed community and had remained, at best, a subordinate feature of economic life . . . “[2]. The historical and anthropological evidence clearly suggests that it was not until the industrial age that the capitalist-inspired “wealth of nations” was realized by a hegemonic economic system guided by self-interested priorities and the exploitation of material goods and human beings in a relentless pursuit of profit for the few. Before this period, our economics were oriented by social, community, tribal and familial concerns that were considered far more important than the private possession and accumulation of goods based wholly on economic self-interest.

A more precise and broad-based historical study would conclude that, in point of fact, there isn’t anything in nature, the human condition, morality or history that necessitates the adoption of capitalism. It would also disclose that there is nothingimpartial about early capitalism’s inextricable relation to colonialism, slavery or plunder for private gain. In point of fact, the historical reality is that market capitalism is intimately tied to a colonial-imperialist political agenda. This imperialist history clearly demonstrates that there is also very little that is “free” about a “free-market” that derives its freedom to accumulate wealth by way of slave labor, slave wages, debt bondage, unjust land confiscation and the expropriation of common lands and resources into private hands. In America, the so-called “free market” wedded private self-interested exploitation of labor with imperialist state interest on a scale that dramatically dwarfed the brutality of old-world Europe. It should not be in the least surprising then that the slave plantation might capture the essence of our modern global capitalist system, insofar as it is built on the premise of extracting maximum labor at minimal cost.

Of course when one looks at history, it is not immediately apparent that the “founding fathers’ of capitalism – John Locke, Adam Smith, David Ricardo – wanted to intentionally construct a system that would entrench massive inequality. The latter figures were highly articulate, systematic, future-oriented thinkers who believed that private property, free trade, competition and laissez-faire capitalism were inherently good, and had an unlimited potential to raise the general welfare of society. However, even here, those who enjoyed the fruits of a capitalist political economy were relatively few – certainly not the working class or slaves. Each of these illustrious thinkers exemplifies in his writings the material contradictions that capitalism represents.

To be fair, from the perspective of the 18th and 19th centuries, the planet did appear to have unlimited potential for growth, not to mention individual and social enrichment.

Moreover, the science of pollution and toxicity of industrial chemicals 200 years ago was nowhere near the advanced state it is now. However, the material contradictions of capitalism are starkly illustrated even in its earliest philosophical foundations. Thus, on the one hand, John Locke’s (1632-1704) political philosophy begins (as against Hobbes’) with the idea that in our “original state of nature,” we are not in a state of war, but in a state of ” ‘perfect freedom’ to order our action, and dispose of our possessions and persons, as we think fit, within the bounds of the law of nature, without asking leave, or depending upon the will of any other man.” This state of nature, Locke believed, is also a state “. . . of equality, wherein all the power and jurisdiction is reciprocal, no one having more than another.” [3]

However, on the other hand, not all people were heir to such “perfect freedom” in their “natural state” or otherwise; nor did they have possessions or reciprocal power. In fact, a good many of them were not even treated as “persons” or individuals, but as mere “savages.” There is nothing fair or equal about the fact that Locke’s tremendous wealth was directly the result of investments in the silk and slave trade. Indeed, he believed that important, moneyed land barons should form “a government of slave-owners” and suggested that children over 3 years of age who were from families on relief should attend “working schools” so they would be “from infancy . . . inured to work” [4]. Appearances notwithstanding, the “sacred and inviolable right to property” that Locke espouses is not something either slaves or the laboring classes were granted. The “perfect freedom” was indeed “perfect servitude” of those who were not white Europeans.

Behind the wonderful talk of liberal values, “increasing the common stock of man through money” and individual rights, Locke put forward an absolutist theory of property that would provide legitimacy to the imperialist ambitions of England and wealthy English landowners in America. The problem is that Locke’s morally grounded theory of the right to private property presupposes the expropriation of ancestral native lands, the existence of slavery and the impoverishment of laboring classes. As Ronald Wright has astutely noted, quoting from Senator Dawes in his Allotment Act, the problem with “Indians” is that they lacked “selfishness, which is the bottom of civilization”![5] What we are compelled to conclude here is that these historical facts are not unpredictable events or anomalies of capitalism, but perspectives and practices intrinsic to the expansion of a capitalist economy.

The unavoidable question is why Smith advocated a “capitalist economic system” that glorified unbridled competition – a practice he intuited would inevitably corrupt our “natural sentiments” and deepen a proclivity toward selfish behaviour?

The Scottish Enlightenment thinker Adam Smith (1723-1790) believed that not only did competition mitigate the ruthlessness of self-interest, but the providential “invisible hand of the market” would ensure that in promoting our self-interest we would be simultaneously promoting the interests of society, whether we intended to do so or not. But, the rational or enlightened self-interest of Smith’s economic man breaks down fairly quickly within the logic of monopolistic capitalism. Smith, like Piketty, is prescient enough to caution about the monopolistic trajectory of capitalism and the potential that industry and business had for influencing politics in their favour over the good of consumers and society as a whole. Moreover, against the logic of unfettered capitalist accumulation, he also thought laborers should be well paid and the rich and indolent taxed for the benefit of the poor.

At the same time, Smith’s “merchant” is not much different than the modern corporate CEO. A merchant he explains “. . . is not necessarily a citizen of any particular country. It is in a great measure indifferent to him from what place he carries on his trade; and a very trifling disgust will make him remove his capital, and together with it all the industry which it supports, from one country to another.” [6]It is not hard to imagine that the “trifling disgust” classical merchants or modern CEOs experience is a consequence of having unions or governments interfere with their profits by demanding workers receive a living wage.

In the end, the unavoidable question is why Smith advocated a “capitalist economic system” that glorified unbridled competition – a practice he intuited would inevitably corrupt our “natural sentiments” and deepen a proclivity toward selfish behaviour? If the answer is that it is the self-correcting, providential “invisible hand” that reconciles selfishness and the general welfare of society, then Smith’s entire economic system rests on a fiction: There just is no such thing as an “invisible hand,” nor has there ever been any such providential or moral self-correcting mechanism within capitalist economics. Given this, it is difficult not to conclude that Smith (again, like Piketty) did, in fact, fully grasp the adverse effects and inherent material contradictions of capitalism. Nevertheless, he held steadfastly to the idea that a phantasmal occult force (the invisible hand) would enable our natural sympathy with the plight of others and our natural self-interested expression of individual freedom to live peacefully together.

What is startling is not how different, but how similar the speculative capitalist mindset has always been. The early 19th century economist, broker and speculator David Ricardo “. . . made the bulk of his fortune as a result of speculation on the outcome of the Battle of Waterloo, using methods that today would result in prosecution for insider trading and market manipulation.”[7] It is not a great leap from insider trading (which Milton Friedman, much later, enthusiastically endorsed) to securities fraud, negligent subprime mortgage lending, unregulated credit default swaps and so on. But it is also evidently true that wealth is  power – power cashed out at the political level. Ricardo, who was able to use his largesse to buy a seat in the UK Parliament, would probably not have had any problem with the Supreme CourtCitizens United decision to remove limits on corporate political donations. Perhaps we have here one of the earliest exemplars of how moneyed interest, power and political ambition are easily woven together in a capitalist political economy. At any rate, it is clear that the very visible hand of the elite class inevitably renders government “by and for the people’ pretty much irrelevant – or better, invisible.

As for economic theory, Ricardo’s assumption that with social progress, the price of labor is “dear when it is scarce and cheap when it is plentiful” might explain why today the superrich have “stopped worrying and learned to love unemployment and under-employment.” As the rich have become even richer since the 2007 financial crisis, the global unemployment rate has steadily increased such that by 2015, 205 million people will be out of work – and this doesn’t even touch those who have given up looking for a job. Of course, Ricardo, like Marx after him, was clever enough to recognize that the interests of wealthy landowners were often in direct opposition to the good of society and would inevitably create tension and upheaval. This did not, however, prevent him from advocating for the abolition of the Poor Law which, he believed, encouraged people to be lazy and irresponsible – “are there no prisons? . . . are there no workhouses?”

Despite some indications to the contrary, Hobbes’ theory of human nature is unambiguously presupposed in Locke, Smith and Ricardo’s elaboration of capitalist political economy. All are essentially in agreement with the idea that we are “by nature” selfish creatures. Perhaps it is only in this sense we can be said to be “equals” – we are all equally selfish. However, such a presupposition, by any objective measure, is simply false. We know today, from abundant empirical, sociological, psychological, genetic, archaeological and anthropological evidence, that Hobbes’ theory of human nature as intrinsically “selfish” is deeply flawed. We are not “naturally” selfish – though we can, indeed, learn to be so. In other words, within a capitalist system it can become trueover over the course of time that an elite few will be chiefly oriented by greed, narcissism or selfishness – and some of the latter not so very far from the “squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinners!” Dickens describes Mr. “Scrooge” as in A Christmas Carol. Of course, today the latter are no longer viewed as “sinners.” The real problem is that in our present world they are the “glorified masters” of our economies and governments. They are continuously praised, deferred to, considered “above the laws of the land” and allowed to live in a world of unabashed opulence entirely walled off from the rabble of mankind. Succinctly put, in capitalism, the greedy of the world have discovered their ideal legitimating cover: the promotion of a self-serving economics that turns the vice of selfishness into the highest virtue human beings can realize! [8]

History aside, from our own contemporary perspective, we can get a sense of “really existing capitalism’ by virtue of the following thought-experiment, which reveals the latter in its unadorned state. Imagine that we were able, right now, to ask the 7 or so billion people living on the planet whether they would choose an economic system that would inevitably lead to massive wealth and income inequalities, that would severely limit equal opportunity, that would force whole populations to live under perpetual economic austerity, that would erode any possibility of meaningful and democratic political participation, that would devastate the health of the planet and the human body while externalizing the costs of such destruction onto everyone, with the exception of a very privileged few.

Now . . . how many people do you think would actually opt for such an arrangement? Honest answer: Almost no one! The only people who would agree to such a set of conditions would be an infinitesimally small group whose present privileged economic status would be protected and furthered by maintaining the status quo. The fact is that though there are many manifestations of the capitalist system, the intentional logic of capitalism always was, and still is, the same: to protect and perpetuate the power, status and privilege of the few, while impoverishing everyone else.

Given this, you might think that we would seriously question anyone who asserts that capitalism best captures or reflects the essential capabilities, wants, desires or needs of human beings – or that it, in any way, helps to preserve or sustain the resources of the planet for future generations. If anything, capitalism has become the medium where what is worst in us is magnified and given legitimacy – materialism, greed, indifference to the suffering of others, deceitfulness and hubris – while diminishing the importance of justice, benevolence and environmental stewardship. Hopefully, Piketty’s book will be a wake-up call – not a call to fix capitalism, but to overcome it. The fact is that even if a tax on wealth could somehow reconcile the logical contradiction within capitalism, it will do nothing to prevent corporations from their “race to exploit what is left” [9]; it will not stop them from moving us closer to ecological disaster by extracting oil from bituminous sands or minerals from impoverished third world countries; it will not deter the Wall Street mega banks like Goldman Sachs, the “vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity” (to borrow Matt Taibbi’s startling and vivid description) from sucking the life out of national economies; it will not impede the chemical industry from polluting the environment and using whole populations as unwitting research objects for profit; it will not avert the continuing dissolution of democracy by the superrich Koch brothers . . . and on and on.

Notwithstanding all that has been said, it is still conceivable that we could reverse our present “conditioning” by thinking and acting in different ways – by recognizing that, progressively, with the help of others, we could cultivate radically different perspectives and practices (economic and otherwise). But any such effort must assume that we are also acutely aware of the ubiquity and the powerful force of capitalist propaganda. As Henry Giroux reminds us “dominant power works relentlessly through its major cultural apparatuses to hide, mischaracterize or lampoon resistance, dissent and critically engaged social movements. This is done, in part, by sanitizing public memory and erasing critical knowledge and oppositional struggles from newspapers, radio, television, film and all those cultural institutions that engage in systemic forms of education and memory work.”[10]

Above all, the possibility of alternative economic visions, perspectives and practices have to be grounded in the reality that we share a limited world, and that we are and have always been capable of creating an economic system and public policies that preserve the health and well-being of the planet and all of the creatures that inhabit it.

NOTES:

1. Chrystia Freeland, Plutocrats, The Rise of the New Global Super-Rich and the Fall of Everyone Else. Anchor Canada 2012. p. xvi. Freeland is likely drawing from Churchill’s oft-quoted conclusion that “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.”

2. Karl Polanyi, The Great Transformation, The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time, Beacon Press 1957 pp. 45-58

3. John Locke, “The Second Treatise of Government”, in Princeton Readings in Political Thought, edited by Mitchell Cohen and Nicole Fermon. Princeton University Press, 1996. pp. 243-4

4. See Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States, Harper Perennial Modern Classics 2005. pp. 73-75

5. Ronald Wright, What is America: A Short History of the New World Order, Vintage Canada, 2009. p. 116

6. To really understand the tension within Smith’s thought it is helpful to read both An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations and The Theory of Moral Sentiments.

7. Adam Smith, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations Book III, Chapter IV.

8. You can find Ayn Rand’s and Nathaniel Branden’s The virtue of Selfishness: A New Concept of Egoism.

9. See Michael Klare’s The Race for What’s Left: The Global Scramble for the World’s Last Resources, Picador, 2012

10. Henry Giroux, “Hope in the Age of Looming Authoritarianism,” Truthout.

Tipping the scale: how a political economist could save the world’s forests (Mongabay)

By: Wendee Nicole

Mongabay.org Special Reporting Initiative Fellow

May 29, 2014

Can Elinor Ostrom’s revolutionary ideas halt climate change, improve people’s livelihoods, and save the world’s forests?

“[T]here’s a five-letter word I’d like to repeat and repeat and repeat: Trust.”

Thus spoke Elinor Ostrom in her 2009 Stockholm lecture, when at age 77 she became the first woman to receive the Nobel Prize in Economics. A professor of political science at Indiana University-Bloomington until her death in 2012, she’d spent a lifetime traveling the world and observing everyday citizens cooperating against all odds.

Ostrom's famous smile.  Photo courtesy of the International Land Coalition under a Creative Commons license from Flickr.com.Ostrom’s famous smile. Photo courtesy of the International Land Coalition under a Creative Commons license from Flickr.com.

Ostrom frequently encountered groups of people managing commonly shared resources, creating systems based on trust, such as peasant farmers in Nepal cooperatively managing simple irrigation systems, and people working to solve human-wildlife conflict with forest elephants in Kenya. Why, she wondered, were these people sacrificing their own time and energy to collectively solve social and environmental problems, creating local institutions that lasted many generations? Such collective behavior flew in the face of the longstanding theory of the day, which said that people will selfishly take whatever they can, ultimately causing a “tragedy of the commons” – depleting fish stocks, destroying forests and pastures, usurping groundwater, and otherwise destroying the planet and ultimately, their own livelihoods. People, so the theory went, were too stupid or selfish to solve their own problems and needed regulation by market forces or a top-down government, or the planet was toast.

Yet through trial and error and much research, Ostrom had found the secret. “When people have trust that others are going to reciprocate and be trustworthy, including their officials, they will be highly cooperative,” Ostrom said in an interview with journalists after the Nobel Committee announced her prize. “When there’s no trust, no matter how much force is threatened, people won’t cooperate unless immediately facing a gun.” When people don’t trust others, they “cheat” – breaking rules and seeking their own self-interest.

In her 1990 book Governing the Commons – which the Nobel Committee called her most important contribution – Ostrom proposed eight “design principles” (see Sidebar) that she found were consistently present in sustainable, cooperatively managed commons (any resource shared by multiple people). Drawn from several decades of research, Ostrom’s insights stemmed from personally witnessing examples in the real world, but she named the specific principles by statistically analyzing thousands of published studies in many fields.

Ostrom found environmentally and socially sustainable ‘common pool resources’ had several of these principles in place.

Ostrom found environmentally and socially sustainable ‘common pool resources’ had several of these principles in place.

Ostrom devoted the last decades of her life to figuring out how to have sustainable communities and healthy ecosystems (particularly forests) – rather than humans and nature being at odds. She believed in the power and intelligenfce of ordinary people to collectively solve their own problems so long as higher-level governments did not interfere. Her alma mater, UCLA, called her “an ardent champion of the idea that people will learn to share and thrive if given the opportunity.”

“If given the opportunity” is key. Ostrom’s research did not find that people always cooperate. “There are settings in which they will grab like mad,” she explained in a video interview with Nobelprize.org. “Humans are neither all angels or all devils. It is the context in which they find themselves that enables them to have more willingness to use reciprocity, to trust one another.”

“The resources in good condition around the world have users with long-term interest who invest in monitoring and building [trust]. I really want that to be a big lesson,” she said in the final moments of her Nobel lecture. “Unfortunately, many policy analysts and public officials haven’t absorbed the lesson yet, and that’s a problem.”

Ostrom’s work lives on at Indiana University’s Vincent and Elinor Ostrom Workshop in Political Theory and Policy Analysis, and in the many scholars and colleagues who continue to study, refine, and apply her theories in the real world. However, her untimely death from pancreatic cancer three years after receiving the highest honor in her field deprived her work of a folksy, outspoken, kind-hearted champion of the common man and woman.

“She had incredible energy and determination, and an easy way of communicating with ordinary people,” says her colleague Mike McGinnis, IU political science professor and Workshop member.

“VincentVincent and Elinor Ostrom Founded The Workshop in Political Theory and Policy Analysis in the 1970s, where Lin co-directed it until her death in 2012. It is housed in an old house on the Indiana University-Bloomington campus, and Workshop members (professors, graduate students, postdocs, and visiting scholars) have offices in this as well as two neighboring buildings. Photo (c) copyright 2014 Wendee Nicole.

The Nobel brought Ostrom’s already robust theories greater acclaim, and the theories remain super-hot in academic circles, yet her lessons have yet to be fully absorbed into global policy. While many countries have now embraced some forms of decentralization – giving more power to regional and local authorities – these policies do not always mean local people are given more influene. And among the general public there remains a general lack of awareness of Ostrom’s revolutionary ideas; say “polycentricity” or “commons” to a friend, and watch their eyes glaze over.

Yet Ostrom’s theories cut across political party lines and offer deep, meaningful insights about how to manage forests, fisheries, and communities – all of which are in flux as global climate change may reach crisis proportions in the coming decades. In her latter years, Ostrom grew deeply concerned that the United Nations REDD+ [reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation] mechanism would lead to more, not less, deforestation if indigenous and local people are not given rights and land tenure, and she openly discussed the applicability of her research to global climate negotiations. Even though REDD+ policies are designed to benefit locals, without land tenure, those policies could lead to evictions of forest users when people with more power and wealth engage in a “carbon grab,” as a recently publishedreport called it.

“If local users and Indigenous peoples in the developing world are not recognized and assigned clear rights, REDD could lead to more deforestation,” Ostrom said at the 2009 United Nations Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP15) in Copenhagen. Neglecting her work could be suicidal in times such as these.

Real Life vs. Theory

“AA portrait of Ostrom at the conference with the laureates of the memorial prize in economic sciences in 2009. Photo courtesy of Holger Motzkau 2010, under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

Understanding how cooperation and trust help people create sustainable social-ecological systems began to gel for Ostrom in the 1980s, during her travels around the world. “I came back from a particularly vivid occasion in Nepal … where someone had dug into an irrigation channel and several [people] went running down the hill yelling and screaming [at the perpetrator] and others started patching it immediately,” she says in the Nobelprize.org interview. “I mean, the energy they put in! There was no rational calculation about this. They just did it. The game theory prediction was they wouldn’t.”

She knew the theory must be wrong, because the real world was staring her in the face.

Game theory came into the public consciousness with the 2001 biopic A Beautiful Mind, about the life of Economics Nobel Laureate John Forbes Nash. The movie simplified his theory this way: most guys go for the best-looking girl (“the blonde”), resulting in a lot of losers since only one gets the girl. In a similar vein, biologist Garrett Hardin theorized in his famous 1968 Science article, “Tragedy of the Commons,” that people adding cows to a commonly used pasture would act selfishly, ignoring the collective good.

“Each man is locked into a system that compels him to increase his herd without limit—in a world that is limited,” Hardin wrote, adding dramatically, “Ruin is the destination toward which all men rush, each pursuing his own best interest in a society that believes in the freedom of the commons. Freedom in a commons brings ruin to all.”

With daily news reporting razed tropical forests, biological extinctions, eroded and desertified land and an atmosphere rapidly accumulating CO2, it seems that these theories match reality. Why then, did Ostrom keep finding real-world situations that defied the predictions?

“ABatwa men and women in Uganda’s Makongoro village process reeds from the forest to weave baskets which they sell to make money for their families and communities. Now conservation refugees evicted from their traditional forest home, now they must receive permits from the Ugandan government to harvest forest products, but most are not educated and need assistance to fill out forms and paperwork. In contrast with Ostrom’s design principles, the government did not actively consult the Batwa when evicting them from the forest but chased them out with guns, giving no land or resources to establish new lives. Photo (c) copyright 2014 Wendee Nicole.

Taking Hardin, Nash and similar theorists to heart, policymakers opted for two opposite solutions to protecting the commons: privatize natural resources (leading to “payment for ecosystem services” type projects), or have governments lock natural areas up in preserves. The latter usually meant stripping rights from locals who had long used these commons for subsistence fishing or hunting, or in the case of forests, gathering firewood, medicinal plants, and other forest products. Many governments (supported by large conservation organizations) evicted indigenous peoples from their homeland in the belief they damaged ecosystems. Ostrom’s research found that such policies are sometimes counterproductive. Many of the evicted people receive little or no government assistance and end up as “conservation refugees,” adrift with nowhere to go and no means to support themselves.

In Uganda, indigenous Batwa forest pygmies lived within the Echuya Forest Reserve, acting as forest monitors for non-indigenous locals who could only access the forest once per week. Compared to four other community-managed forests where Batwa did not live, the Echuya forest experienced the least illegal firewood harvest and other non-sanctioned activities. Yet in 1992, Uganda evicted Batwa from all government forests in order to create national parks for tourism. Regaining rights to harvest forest products has been a slow, uneven process and these indigenous people now suffer some of the worst poverty in all of Uganda. As Ostrom’s theories would predict, evidence suggests that poaching and illegal access of the forest have increased since the Batwa were evicted.

“Three
Three young Batwa children run and play in their land adjacent to Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable National Park. The Batwa were evicted by the government in 1991 and now live as conservation refugees outside the park, often in extreme poverty. Research by Workshop scholar Abwoli Banana (who runs the Uganda IFRI Center) showed that forests in which Batwa lived before their eviction had less, not more, forest degradation, than other community-managed forests, which matches Ostrom’s theories. Photo (c) copyright 2014 Wendee Nicole.

“There are environments, especially in some of the developing world, where [locals’] own institutions that had evolved over long periods of time were taken away from them. They’ve lived under top-down regimes and some of the trust and capability of working together have been destroyed,” Ostrom said in a documentary created about the 2009 Economics Nobel Laureates, herself and Oliver Williamson. “It’s very hard to re-establish [trust] once you’ve taken it away.” Ostroms found that taking rights away from locals and indigenous can lead to more, not less, forest degradation.

Lin the Connector

Described by The Economist as “a little like Agatha Christie’s detective, Jane Marple, apparently a bit sweet and scatty, in reality sharp as a paper cut,” Ostrom was remarkably far-sighted in her long, illustrious career.

“I’ve never met anyone like her in my life. She was a ball of energy,” says Burnell Fischer, her IU colleague and current co-director of the Workshop in Political Theory and Policy Analysis, which Ostrom directed until she died in June 2012. (Her husband, Vincent Ostrom, died within weeks of Lin’s passing).

“She was connected to all kinds of people around the world, says Fischer.”

Ostrom not only knew people in varied fields the world over, she connected them – and their ideas. She was what Malcolm Gladwell would call a Connector, one of the rare few whose “ability to span many different worlds is a function of something intrinsic to their personality, some combination of curiosity, self-confidence, and energy” – the type of person who can spark a fire, tip the scales, and change the world. “By having a foot in so many different worlds,” writes Gladwell in The Tipping Point, “[connectors] have the effect of bringing them all together.”

“Stories of Ostrom’s collaborative genius are legion: suggesting just the right article or idea to jump-start a dissertation; making a contact that launches a recently minted Ph.D.’s career,” wrote Jeremy Shere in IU’s SPEA (School of Public and Environmental Affairs) magazine.

Born Elinor Awan, her life – and her interest in cooperation – began under less than ideal circumstances. Raised mainly by a single mom in Los Angeles during the Depression, she first saw people cooperating during the war, planting victory gardens and voluntarily limiting the use of their resources. Whatever passions drove her, Ostrom overcame obstacles throughout her life with a surprising degree of self-confidence. Peers taunted her over her father’s Jewish heritage, even though she attended her mother’s Protestant church, and setbacks she experienced as a woman in academia gave her much empathy for those who experience discrimination. Setbacks only seemed to push her forward.

“Photo
Photo taken January 1992 of Vincent Ostrom, Tej Kumari Mahat (chair person of the FMIS in Sera-baguwa bandh irrigation system, Tharpu, Tanahu) and Elinor Ostrom in Tharpu village, Tanahu. Photo under the Digital Library of the Commons.

In an article about her life, Ostrom explains that because she stuttered in high school, a teacher told her to join Speech Club. When she recited poetry in the club, others called poetry a “sissy” thing, so she enrolled in debate instead. She loved debate so much that upon enrolling at the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA), she asked her undergraduate advisor if she could major in debating. He recommended education, ‘the best major for a girl.’ Her parents, neither of whom had attained a university degree, considered college a wasted investment, so she worked to pay her way. Her freshman year, she took a political science class and made it her major, despite the advisor’s advice. After graduating, she became the first woman with a job higher than secretary at a firm in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where she helped her first husband through Harvard Law School. The first question asked in her interview was, “Do you know shorthand?”

After her divorce in the early 1960s, she returned to L.A. and was easily accepted in a political science Masters program at UCLA, but applying for a doctorate proved challenging. She wanted a Ph.D. in Economics, but did not have enough mathematics because her undergraduate advisors had dissuaded her from those classes. But soon she became one of four women – the first in 40 years — accepted into the political science Ph.D. program after the department faculty argued vehemently over whether to admit any women.

Lin – as everyone called her – met her second husband Vincent Ostrom in a seminar in which each student picked a groundwater basin in southern California to study. They soon fell in love, and married in 1963. She continued studying irrigation systems for her graduate research, and when Hardin published his famous “Tragedy of the Commons” article, she was immediately skeptical – and stayed so, eventually showing that his theory was wrong in many situations.

Lin followed Vincent to Indiana University, where he got a job as a tenure-track professor and she was hired only as a lecturer. As the Vietnam War escalated, the political science department asked her to serve as graduate advisor to some 90 students, at which point she negotiated to have IU hire her as a full-time faculty member.

During the 1970s, she and Vincent, who made furniture as a hobby, created the “Workshop in Political Theory”, modeled after an artisan-style woodworkers’ workshop, where people from varied disciplines could collaborate, brainstorm, and hammer out ideas. The workshop and the offices the Ostroms filled with their larger-than-life personalities are located in a large old house on the IU-Bloomington campus.

Design for the Commons

People in many academic fields and nations had studied the use of “common pool resources” or commons (any resource that is used in common with others), but since disciplinary and regional “silos” rarely communicate, nobody had synthesized the information to develop a unified understanding. “Historians, anthropologists, economists, political scientists – a vast array of people had written sometimes long histories or descriptions,” Ostrom said in her Nobel talk, “but they wrote about a particular sector or a particular region of the world.”

In the mid-1980s, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences gathered researchers from varied fields together, including Ostrom, to compile data on the management of common pool resources around the world. The NAS work resulted in the Common Pool Resource Database, still online, and Ostrom’s book, Governing the Commons. As she tested what made people cooperate and self-organize and worked on her book while on a sabbatical in Germany, she became exasperated.

“I tried like mad to see statistically, aha, the market always works, or hierarchy always works, or entry limitation [barriers to the number of people allowed in a system] always works,” she said in the Nobel documentary. “I really struggled.”

Photo taken March 1993 of elephant embankment platform in Ghadgain, (L to R) Indra Sharan K.C., Douglas Vermillion, Elinor Ostrom and Rabi Poudel during the final day of Workshop outing to the RCNP. Photo under the <a href=http://dlc.dlib.indiana.edu/dlc/>Digital Library of the Commons</a>.
Photo taken March 1993 of elephant embankment platform in Ghadgain, (L to R) Indra Sharan K.C., Douglas Vermillion, Elinor Ostrom and Rabi Poudel during the final day of Workshop outing to the RCNP. Photo under the Digital Library of the Commons.

“I tried to move up a level – [to ask] what were the generalities across the systems,” she explained in the NobelPrize.org interview. “Maybe we could call it best practices.” These became her eight design principles present in successful “institutions” and missing from unsuccessful ones.

The design principles include allowing the people most invested in the resource to both make and modify the rules of use; having clear, agreed-upon rules that outside authorities respect and that do not conflict with other levels of governance; allowing the users of a resource to monitor its use; having a system of graduated sanctions; and cheap, accessible means of conflict resolution. In the words of Tore Ellingsen of the Economics Nobel Committee, “successful groups are relatively democratic.”

“When rules are created and enforced by outside authorities, groups often fail to utilize resources efficiently,” added Ellingsen. “In part, such outside interventions fail because the interventions pay inadequate attention to local conditions.”

As Ostrom teased out her design principles from thousands of studies, including her own, she wanted to test what she saw in a simplified lab setting. “I was very fortunate that [IU Economics professor] Jimmy Walker came to Bloomington just as I was getting hungry for [asking], how would we ever put these things in a carefully developed laboratory experiment?,” she said in a 2009 interview with the Annual Review of Political Science. “It’s enabled us to take things that I observed in the field, then … go to the lab and test [it]. Was this just an unusual set of things that I saw in the field, or would you find it repeated under situations that were very carefully designed?”

Not Just Cheap Talk

As it turns out, Ostrom’s real-world observations matched what she and her colleagues found in their social science lab experiments beginning in the 1980s: communication completely changed the classic game theory predictions that the optimal behavior was to act selfishly or “cheat” rather than cooperate. In each experiment, eight people sat at computers and had the ability to “invest” either in a commonly shared resource, or in a private fund. The commons paid better – up to a point – just like a pasture that is vulnerable to overcrowding, or a forest that can be used sustainably or overharvested.

“When subjects … couldn’t communicate, the theory was right. They overharvested even worse than predicted,” Ostrom describes in her Nobel lecture. “However, when they could communicate face to face, theory was wrong.” Trust could be achieved through simple communication. It was a radical breakthrough: the commons need not be a tragedy.

Unlike a prisoners’ dilemma (as John Nash’s theory was often modeled), where people are, well, in prison, they often hold the power to change their circumstances in the real world. Ostrom boldly challenged the longstanding theories depicting people as always trapped or “rationally” self-interested – and with sarcasm to boot. “[T]hose attempting to use these models as a basis for policy prescription frequently have achieved little more than a metaphorical use of the models,” she writes in Governing the Commons. She calls such models “dangerous” when used as a foundation for policy because they assume “all users of natural resources are similarly incapable of changing their constraints.”

With characteristic optimism Ostrom concludes, “I would rather address the question of how to enhance the capabilities of those involved to change the constraining rules of the game to lead to outcomes other than remorseless tragedies.”

And who better to change the rules of the game than the people most invested in a resource? “Here we had this notion that rational individuals were ‘trapped’,” said Ostrom in her Nobel lecture. “Us theorists were supposed to come up with the optimal solution, give it to a public official and they’d impose it. And there were only two solutions: government or private ownership.”

Why did experts and authorities have solutions but ordinary citizens didn’t? It defied what she’d seen around the world. Even Hardin himself later admitted his theory of tragedy only applied to “Unmanaged Commons.”

Design for a Sustainable World

“Methodist
Methodist Primary School building. Elinor Ostrom standing in a school room with one teacher and one student posing in front of the blackboard. Photo under the Digital Library of the Commons.

As Ostrom became more involved in ecology and forestry research in the 1990s, the United Nations Food & Agriculture Organization (FAO) came to her, wanting systematic information on global forests and the people depending on them. She founded the International Forestry Resources and Institutions (IFRI) research network, still the only interdisciplinary, long-term research program focusing on both forests and social-ecological conditions. Researchers in the 15 centers around the world – including Tanzania, Uganda, Bolivia, Nepal, and India – use a common set of research protocols to facilitate global research.

In the last decade of her life, Ostrom became increasingly vocal about how her findings applied to climate negotiations, particularly REDD+ policies, which many indigenous groups oppose. REDD is a “market” mechanism, which compensates landowners either to maintain existing forest or plant new trees, but indigenous and locals relying on forests fear it may concentrate wealth in the hands of a few and cause conflict among neighbors. Also, many indigenous and local forest dwellers do not have formal tenure rights to the land they live on and use, which REDD requires; international markets are unable to compensate people who do not have secure land ownership, which offers no guarantee forests will remain intact.

Having seen how powerful governments and, environmental groups have at times trampled the rights of locals and indigenous groups, Ostrom was concerned. “I hope in our negotiations that … we are very, very careful to be sure that the rights of indigenous people and local owners that have not been recognized in the past are recognized, protected, and that they’re given a chance to get technical advice,” she said at COP15.

At the time, REDD policies were still being negotiated, and since the Warsaw framework for REDD+ was passed in November 2013, such projects have started around the world. But Ostrom’s research suggests that if REDD+ policies are merely designed by top-level authorities, without involvement of the local people who use the forests, the policies will fail to create the trust necessary for sustainable community-managed forests, and could instead lead to forest degradation and loss.

Ostrom had strong views on REDD, but according to her colleagues she was not anti-market, despite what some detractors have claimed. Neither is she anti-state, although her work has been both praised and criticized by people of varying political bents.

“Lin’s work has been misunderstood and misrepresented by advocates on both the left and the right,” explains McGinnis. “I vividly recall one day shortly after she received the Nobel when she came down from her office really frustrated because she had just completed two phone interviews. In one the reporter asked her why she was so vehemently anti-market, and in the very next interview she was asked why she was so vehemently anti-state. Her findings never fit neatly within the dominant left-right political discourse in the U.S., and she was very comfortable with that lack of fit.”

The Test of Time

“Framed
Framed pencil drawing of Elinor Ostrom that hang at the University of Mande Bukari. Photo under the Digital Library of the Commons.

Since they were first published in 1990, Ostrom’s design principles have stood the test of time. “Pretty much all [the design principles] have some degree of support,” says IU Anthropology professor Catherine Tucker, and also a Workshop member. “Some are harder to examine because they’re harder to find in the modern world, such as the lack of state intervention. The freedom to design institutions without interference from the state – that’s one that’s problematic [to test].”

Too often, though, top-down governments interfere with the solutions locals have crafted, as happens when governments evict indigenous people from their homelands, or government corruption wreaks havoc on local projects. Local projects can succeed even if higher governments are not supporting them, so long as they do not interfere.

One design principle with very strong empirical support is having locals monitor the use of a resource. “In sustainable forests around the world, the users are the active monitors of the level of harvest occurring in the forests,” Ostrom explained in her Nobel lecture. But the effectiveness of the monitoring depends on who does it. “Users monitoring forests is more [effective] than when government does it.” Also, as Ostrom saw in Nepal, resource users sanction others, but in a graduated way for repeat offenses. Draconian punishment for first-time infractions ends up causing mistrust and resentment, leading to less willingness to cooperate, she found.

Having outlined her big-picture design principles, Ostrom also identified the factors influencing whether people will cooperate and trust. “Field and lab experiments found that communication among participants, the reputation of participants being known, high marginal return, a longer time horizon so if [people] cooperate [they] really have a chance of gaining the benefits over time, [and] an agreed upon sanctioning mechanism,” as well as entry and exit capability (the ability of resource users to begin or end their participation), “are the factors that we repeatedly find have a strong impact on levels of cooperation.”

Eye to the Future

“A lot of people are now waiting for international negotiations to solve [the climate crisis],” she said, responding to a journalist’s question about the implications of her work in a recorded interview after the Nobel announcement. “That’s again this presumption that there are public officials who are genius and the rest of us are not. It is going to be important that there is an international agreement, but we can be taking steps at family level, community level, regional level, provincial, state, national, and there are many steps that have already been taken that are not going to solve it themselves but cumulatively can make a big difference.”

Indiana University-Blooomington Professors Mike McGinnis and Burnell Fischer near the Ostrom Room inside the The Vincent and Elinor Ostrom Workshop in Political Theory and Policy Analysis on campus.
Indiana University-Blooomington Professors Mike McGinnis and Burnell Fischer near the Ostrom Room inside the The Vincent and Elinor Ostrom Workshop in Political Theory and Policy Analysis on campus. Photo (c) copyright 2014 Wendee Nicole.

For example, even without federal emissions-reductions targets, at least 30 U.S. states have developed climate action plans and more than 1,000 cities have signed the U.S. Mayors Climate Protection Agreement. Individuals, communities, and groups can also take action.

Ostrom’s stance hails from her discovery that “polycentric” governance is the most effective way to govern – a concept first developed by Vincent in the 1960s. Polycentricity refers to having multiple levels of governance in place; for example, local people solve dilemmas while interacting in a cooperative manner with laws and regulations at regional, national and sometimes international levels. In an article written in the days leading up to the 2012 UN Rio 20+ Summit and published on the date of her death, Ostrom wrote, “Inaction in Rio would be disastrous, but a single international agreement would be a grave mistake… Decades of research demonstrate that a variety of overlapping policies at city, subnational, national, and international levels is more likely to succeed than are single, overarching binding agreements.”

Academics continue Ostrom’s research, but whether her findings get incorporated into policy in time to solve some of the world’s pressing issues remains to be seen. The morning Ostrom died, IU President Michael A. McRobbie called her “an irreplaceable and magnificent treasure,” and George Mason University professor of Economics and Philosophy Pete Boettke posted a fitting tribute to her legacy for the scholars who have studied under her, alongside her, and who continue the research she began. “Lin leaves behind a tremendous intellectual legacy,” Boettke wrote. “We have much work to do, and we will honor her by getting on with that task…Think about how much can be accomplished when the very best of us exhibit such traits and set the example for all the rest of us to strive to emulate.”

Elinor and Vincent Ostrom at Yuan Ming Yuan Gardens. Photo under the <a href=http://dlc.dlib.indiana.edu/dlc/>Digital Library of the Commons</a>.
Elinor and Vincent Ostrom at Yuan Ming Yuan Gardens. Photo under the Digital Library of the Commons.
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