Continuing our collaboration with the APSA Political Economy newsletter, today we present the final of four obituaries of prominent political economists who recently passed away, with George Mason University political scientist Paul Dragos Aligica writing on Nobel laureate Elinor Ostrom.
Elinor Ostrom, co-founder with Vincent Ostrom of the Bloomington School of Political Economy, has left behind a fascinating intellectual legacy, currently a source of inspiration in fields as diverse as political philosophy and the environmental sciences. Yet, the core of her work has always been in the field of political economy. The Ostroms’ distinctive approach was considered from the very beginning an evolving part of the “Public Choice Revolution” that exploded in the 1960s. As William C. Mitchell put it in his 1988 Public Choice article, “Virginia, Rochester, and Bloomington: Twenty-Five Years of Public Choice and Political Science,” three distinct schools of thought, each associated with particular scholars, have shaped the basic public choice assumptions. In each case “one or two dominant figures led … the effort to construct theories of collective choice: Riker at Rochester, Buchanan and Tullock at various Virginia universities, and the Ostroms at Indiana.”
The Ostroms began in the 1960s with a theory of collective action based on a theory of goods, a theory that was emerging at that time from the mantle of neoclassical economics as a major building block of the new, modern political economy. In time, their work on governance created one of the main channels of the transition from public choice to the new institutionalism. The fact that Elinor Ostrom was a recipient of the 2009 Nobel Prize in Economics was a telling recognition of Bloomington School’s important contributions. Yet, in the celebratory and retrospective mood created by such honors and public recognition, it is important to note that the Bloomington agenda is far from making its closing arguments. In fact, Elinor Ostrom’s work remains an enterprise of unassuming radicalism that persistently invites us to reconsider the very foundations and significance of our scientific efforts. Following the logic of institutional diversity, social heterogeneity, and value pluralism to their epistemic and normative implications, Ostrom’s work both closes a cycle of research on collective action, institutions, and governance and frames the next stage or the next cycle of research.
The depth and boldness of the Ostrom project are revealed when we single out the specific assumptions and perspectives it challenged. We should also take full measure of the way in which those challenges constitute a radical departure from powerful ideas that tacitly framed a vast part of modern political economy. The list of these tacit assumptions is long, but a cluster of related candidates rises to the top in any account: agent and institutional homogenization as a theoretical and methodological default position, centralization and monocentrism as key principles of governance, and “seeing like a state” as an acquired forma mentis in thinking about political and economic affairs. Let’s take these core assumptions that the Ostrom project challenged one by one.
The typical strategy of dealing with the challenge of heterogeneity is easily one of the main assumptions that the Ostrom project challenged. The homogenization by assumption of social agents, the rhetorical trick by which homogeneity is nominally recognized as a fact and a problem but then, in the next move, reduced to a modal profile, a homogenous “representative agent,” with minimalist formal features, is both popular and influential. Versions of this strategy, operating at different levels and on different aspects of heterogeneity, are prevalent, from economics and public choice to political science and social philosophy. The logic of Ostrom’s perspective challenges that approach. Furthermore, it explicitly links the problem of heterogeneity to that of institutional diversity: Because institutional arrangements in any society emerge largely as a response to heterogeneity, and in their turn are conditions of heterogeneity, institutional diversity should be a central (if not the central) theme of institutional theory. Yet, that doesn’t seem to be the case in much of the literature. Models of “markets and hierarchies” remain pivotal, although the theoretical lenses of the theory of the market or the theory of the state are obviously incapable of capturing and illuminating the wide diversity of existing and possible institutional arrangements. A replacement of the classical dichotomous typology (markets and states) with a new trinity (markets, states, and networks) is not an adequate solution. By refusing to accept such solutions, the Ostromian approach looks commonsensical. Yet, when compared to the prevalent views, it is radical. Bloomington institutionalism is ready to take institutional diversity seriously – “beyond the Market and the State,” “beyond Hobbes and Smith” – and to follow to the end its analytical and normative logic.