Political scientist Elinor Ostrom (1933-2012), the first female winner of the Nobel Prize in economics (2009), suggested that the tragedy of the commons could be avoided in situations where partnerships were developed. Rather than leaving common pool resources ungoverned, at one end of the spectrum, or resorting to a private property regime, at the other, Ostrom identifies a system of governance known as a limited access commons, in which a specific number of users own and operate a common resource without outside assistance. She provides examples of land and fisheries management from around the world to demonstrate that such systems can function well without the sort of overarching government mechanisms that are required to establish, adjudicate, police, and enforce private property rights.
In a recent article in the American Journal of Economics and Sociology (2016, 75.2: 289-318), Walter Block and Ivan Jankovic offer a critique of Ostrom’s work, in which they demonstrate that there is a fundamental flaw in the way she understands the idea of partnership. The authors show that partnerships are merely one of many possible arrangements of owners within a private property regime. One of the key elements of their argument is the fact that ownership rights within a partnership are transferable – a concept that is completely inconsistent with the notion of a commons. Further, they demonstrate that many private property regimes function well without an appeal to external government administration. To call them a commons, even with the qualifier that they are limited, is inconsistent with their actual legal status, their means of operation, and their role in the economy. In their view, Ostrom’s use of the word commons represents a rhetorical stance. To say that you are part vegetarian, for example, is not substantially different from saying that you are part carnivore. It’s a question of perspective and impression management (identity).
In a true commons, there is no opportunity for leadership to emerge because there is no governance structure to provide the sort of institutional (rules of the game) environment in which it can do so. In the narrowest possible interpretation of private property, the idea of leadership is irrelevant because both the rules of the game and the way the game is played reside within the purview of a single owner. In the sort of limited access commons identified by Ostrom, governance is established and practiced by a set of individuals who have agreed to work together in managing a common resource, from which they can each extract benefit, without jeopardizing the potential benefits of other partners. Whether or not this kind of arrangment can be carried out in the absence of an overarching administrative law regime provided by government is not the key point. Partners can exclude others from utilizing the resource and they can transfer their share through inheritance or sale. The question for us is – what kind of leadership can emerge, if any, in such a system, and what would be the purpose of such leadership?