Elinor Claire “Lin” Ostrom (August 7, 1933 – June 12, 2012) was an American political economist whose work was associated with the New Institutional Economics and the resurgence of political economy. In 2009, she shared the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences with Oliver E. Williamson for “her analysis of economic governance, especially the commons“. To date, she remains the only woman to win The Nobel Prize in Economics.
Elinor Claire Awan was born in Los Angeles, California as the only child of Leah Hopkins, a musician, and Adrian Awan, a set designer. Her parents separated early in her life, and Elinor lived with her mother most of the time. She attended a Protestantchurch with her mother and often spent weekends with her father’s Jewish family. Growing up in the post-Depression era to divorced artisans, Ostrom described herself as a “poor kid.”
Ostrom graduated from Beverly Hills High School in 1951 and then received a B.A. (with honors) in political science at UCLA in 1954, graduating in three years. She married a classmate, Charles Scott, and worked at General Radio in Cambridge, Massachusettswhile Scott attended Harvard Law School. They divorced several years later when Ostrom began contemplating a PhD.
As a high school student, Elinor Ostrom had been discouraged from studying Trigonometry. She was consequently rejected for an economics PhD at UCLA. She was admitted to UCLA’s graduate program in political science, where she was awarded an M.A. in 1962 and a PhD in 1965.
Ostrom was a member of the United States National Academy of Sciences and president of the American Political Science Association and the Public Choice Society. In 1999, she became the first woman to receive the prestigious Johan Skytte Prize in Political Science.
Her presented paper, on “The Comparative Study of Public Economies”, was followed by a discussion among Kenneth Arrow, Thomas Schelling and Amartya Sen. She was awarded the John J. Carty Award from the National Academy of Sciences in 2004, and, in 2005, received the James Madison Award by the American Political Science Association.
In 2009, Ostrom became the first woman to receive the prestigious Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences. The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences cited Ostrom “for her analysis of economic governance”, saying her work had demonstrated how common property could be successfully managed by groups using it. Ostrom and Oliver E. Williamson shared the 10-million Swedish kronor (£910,000; $1.44 million) prize for their separate work in economic governance. As she had done with previous monetary prizes, Ostrom donated her award to the Workshop she helped to found.
It seemed to Elinor Ostrom that the world contained a large body of common sense. People, left to themselves, would sort out rational ways of surviving and getting along. Although the world’s arable land, forests, fresh water and fisheries were all finite, it was possible to share them without depleting them and to care for them without fighting. While others wrote gloomily of the tragedy of the commons, seeing only overfishing and overfarming in a free-for-all of greed, Mrs Ostrom, with her loud laugh and louder tops, cut a cheery and contrarian figure.
Years of fieldwork, by herself and others, had shown her that humans were not trapped and helpless amid diminishing supplies. She had looked at forests in Nepal, irrigation systems in Spain, mountain villages in Switzerland and Japan, fisheries in Maine and Indonesia. She had even, as part of her PhD at the University of California, Los Angeles, studied the water wars and pumping races going on in the 1950s in her own dry backyard.
All these cases had taught her that, over time, human beings tended to draw up sensible rules for the use of common-pool resources. Neighbours set boundaries and assigned shares, with each individual taking it in turn to use water, or to graze cows on a certain meadow. Common tasks, such as clearing canals or cutting timber, were done together at a certain time. Monitors watched out for rule-breakers, fining or eventually excluding them. The schemes were mutual and reciprocal, and many had worked well for centuries
Mrs Ostrom put no faith in governments, nor in large conservation schemes paid for with aid money and crawling with concrete-bearing engineers. “Polycentrism” was her ideal. Caring for the commons had to be a multiple task, organised from the ground up and shaped to cultural norms. It had to be discussed face to face, and based on trust. Mrs Ostrom, besides poring over satellite data and quizzing lobstermen herself, enjoyed employing game theory to try to predict the behaviour of people faced with limited resources. In her Workshop in Political Theory and Policy Analysis at Indiana University—set up with her husband Vincent, a political scientist, in 1973—her students were given shares in a notional commons. When they simply discussed what they should do before they did it, their rate of return from their “investments” more than doubled.
“Small is beautiful” sometimes seemed to be her creed. Her workshop looked somewhat like a large, cluttered cottage, reflecting her and Vincent’s idea that science was a form of artisanship. When the vogue in America was all for consolidation of public services, she ran against it. For some years she compared police forces in the town of Speedway and the city of Indianapolis, finding that forces of 25-50 officers performed better by almost every measure than 100-strong metropolitan teams. But smaller institutions, she cautioned, might not work better in every case. As she travelled the world, giving out good and sharp advice, “No panaceas!” was her cry.
There was, she believed, a great common fund of sense and wisdom in the world. But it had been an uphill struggle to show that it reposed in both women and men; and that humanity would do best if it could exploit it to the full.