It wasn't until 2009 that most Hoosiers even learned the state had college professor as distinguished and important as Indiana University's Elinor Ostrom. When she won the Nobel Prize in economics that year, her 44-year-academic career was capped with a whirlwind of renown.
And just like that, she's gone. Ostrom died in a Bloomington hospital Tuesday morning at 78 of pancreatic cancer. She was the only woman to ever win the economics Nobel Prize, and she wasn't even an economist. She was brilliant politic science thinker, and she will be missed. But her legacy will live on, and other people will add to what she's learned. We will always have the benefit of what she contributed to the common good.
And “the common good” was what her study was all about. Everybody talks about seeking that elusive goal, especially politicians. Ostrom actually investigated ways we might really achieve it.
It has been conventional wisdom for a long time that our commonly held property would be poorly managed because of the phenomenon of “the tragedy of the commons.” Each of us will take the maximum we can out of the common point, even though common sense would suggest that doing that will soon deplete a resource. We won't restrain our consumption even though it would be in our best interests to do so. What if somebody else gets more than we do? Can't have that!
There are only two ways to avoid the tragedy of the commons, it has been argued. One is top-down government control, specific rules devised by leaders wiser than us; they'll make us husband our resources. The other way is private ownership. People might not take good care of the resources they hold in common, but they certainly care for what is theirs.
Ostrom's research shows that isn't necessarily so. As the Nobel committee said in 2009: “Based on numerous studies of user-managed fish stocks, pastures, woods, lakes and groundwater basins, Ostrom concludes that the outcomes are, more often than not, better than predicted by standard theories. She observes that resource users frequently develop sophisticated mechanisms for decision-making and rule enforcement to handle conflicts of interest, and she characterizes the rules that promote successful outcomes.”
The center she and her husband Vincent established now has research based on her work going on in a dozen countries. As others add to her scholarship, the world will get better. Can't we all just get along? With her help, maybe so. How lucky we are to have had her for a fellow Hoosier.