To amplify what Kieran has just said – political scientists are going to be very, very happy today. I had seen Lin cited as a 50-1 outsider by one betting agency a few days ago, and had been surprised that she was at the races at all, given that economists tend (like the rest of us) to be possessive of their field’s collective goodies. I’m delighted to see that my cynicism was completely misplaced. But this is also a very interesting statement of what the Nobel committee see as important in economics.
Lin’s work focuses on the empirical analysis of collective goods problems – how it is that people can come up with their own solutions to problems of the commons if they are given enough room to do so. Her landmark book, Governing the Commons, provides an empirical rejoinder to the pessimism of Garret Hardin and others about the tragedy of the commons – it documents how people can and do solve these problems in e.g the management of water resources, forestry, pasturage and fishing rights. She and her colleagues gather large sets of data on the conditions under which people are or are not able to solve these problems, and the kinds of rules that they come up with in order to solve them.
This is, as Kieran suggests, a vote in favor of detailed, working-from-the-ground-up, empirical work, which doesn’t rely on sharply contoured theoretical simplifications and flashy statistical techniques so much as the accumulation of good data, which reflects the messiness of the real social institutions from which it is gathered. Quoting from Governing the Commons:
An important challenge facing policy scientists is to develop theories of human organization based on realistic assessment of human capabilities and limitations in dealing with a variety of situations that initially share some or all aspects of a tragedy of the commons. … Theoretical inquiry involves a search for regularities … As a theorist, and at times a modeler, I see these efforts [as being] at the core of a policy science. One can, however, get trapped in one’s own intellectual web. When years have been spent in the development of a theory with considerable power and elegance, analysts obviously will want to apply this tool to as many situations as possible. The power of a theory is exactly proportionate to the diversity of situations it can explain. All theories, however, have limits. Models of a theory are limited still further because many parameters must be fixed in a model, rather than allowed to vary. Confusing a model – such as that of a perfectly competitive market – with the theory of which it is one representation can limit applicability still further. (pp.24-25)
One plausible characterization of her life’s work is that it is about demonstrating the empirical weaknesses of a ‘cute’ economic model (the Tragedy of the Commons) that assumed a role in policy discussions far out of proportion to its actual explanatory power, and replacing it with a set of explanations that are nowhere near as neat, but are far more true to the real world. It is also worth pointing out in passing (as an email correspondent has brought to my attention) that she has received roughly a dozen grants under the NSF program that Senator Tom Coburn wants to abolish. Tom Coburn vs. the Nobel committee as a judge of scholarly quality – you decide.
It is also a vote in favor of supplementing quantitative work with qualitative understanding – Lin spends a lot of time (albeit less than she used to) in the field, soaking up practical knowledge which informs her work in striking ways. She is hands-on in a way that very few economists, political scientists or sociologists are. It is also interesting to note that the Nobel committee pays specific attention to the political implications of her work.
Elinor Ostrom has challenged the conventional wisdom that common property is poorly managed and should be either regulated by central authorities or privatized. 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.
This reflects what she and her husband Vincent refer to as “polycentricity,” a normative approach to governance which stresses the degree to which higher levels of government should not crowd out self-organization at lower levels. Her work implies that both pure marketization and top-down government control can have badly adverse consequences for resource management, because they rob individuals of the capacity to govern themselves, and because they both lead to the depletion of important forms of local collective knowledge. Alex Tabarrok is right to see something Hayekian in Ostrom’s arguments – but it is Hayek against Hayek. Ostrom stresses repeatedly that even the best functioning markets are undergirded by an array of collective institutions which order people’s market interactions, and that in the absence of such rules, self interested behaviour will have highly adverse consequences. Perhaps the closest parallel to Ostrom’s work is Jane Jacobs’. Obviously, Jacobs was not a social scientist and didn’t write like one, but both straddle the divide between libertarian and left politics in very interesting ways that challenge some of the underlying assumptions of both.
Finally, I reckon that this prize couldn’t have been given to a nicer, warmer, more wonderful person. Perhaps I’m biased – I’m one of the younger academics whom Lin has taken under her wing – but I note that (a) I am only one of many younger people in the field whom she has been generous to, and (b) she didn’t have any of the usual institutional reasons to be so kind in my case. There are a lot of very smart and successful senior academics out there – a significantly smaller subset of them are notable for their generosity to people who are not their peers. I’m very happy that this award has gone to one of that subset, and for purely personal reasons, I’m delighted that it was Lin. A Good Outcome.