Tim Harford on Lin Ostrom

There is something devilish in the new technologies. As we have commented previously, there is some truth in Nicholas Carr argument (The Shallows) that we are not able to concentrate and read in depth texts when using a screen in the way we do when reading them on paper. At least it happens to me without any doubt. In fact, when reading on a screen, I cannot help jumping between lines and missing big chunks of text as in a hurry to end and go on to the next text.

I thought of a strategy to tackle the problem but the remedy ended up being worse than the disease. Whenever I find a text on the web that I feel that I am not reading with the dedication that it deserves, I stop reading it and write down its URL into a list of “reading later” texts. The problem? The list has grown, grown and grown and I had read not a single item from it. It never seemed to be the right moment.

Today I decided that enough is enough, opened the list, printed on paper the first item of it and read it quietly by the window. It turned out to be a gem.

Tim Harford presents us a fundamental issue in our globally warmed world. How humans can interact to handle common resources to avoid its exhaustion and depletion.

He introduces us Garret Hardin and his catch phrase “the Tragedy of the Commons”. Tim tells us about Garret’s idea, that commonalities cannot be managed but end up always exhausted and destroyed. According to him the only way out of that trap is either nationalization with government control or division of the common good with private management.

The real hero of this story, however, is Lin Ostrom. In an emotive and extremely well written style, we are told her struggling efforts to became, being a woman, a political scientist in the fifties, her open and optimistic character and, above all, the fundamental contributions she made in creating alternatives to the tragic point of view of Hardin.

Hers is a message of hope in the power of humans to find ways and methods to solve the problems without having to resort to government.

Lin Showed that such outcomes often came from private individuals or local associations, who came up with their own rules and then lobbied the state to enforce them.

Reality proved once and again that, contrary to what Hardin thought, groups of people had succeeded in managing in collective ways common goods.

And she and her husband applied to their scientific life what their own learning

Ostrom’s research project came to resemble one of the local, community-led institutions that she sought to explain. In 1973, the Ostroms established something called the “Workshop in Political Theory and Policy Analysis”. Why not a school or a centre or a department? It was partly to sidestep bureaucracy. “The university didn’t know what a workshop was,” says Michael McGinnis, a professor of political science at Indiana University and a colleague of the Ostroms. “They didn’t have rules for a workshop”.

When reading this post I went immediately to my library (real one, each book keeping a place in the non-cyber space) and reach for The Origins of Virtue. A book that impressed and influenced me several years ago. And yes, I had forgotten her name but Ostrom was there explained in depth.

I have to thank Tim Harford for bringing me back her name tonight.

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