Elinor Ostrom

American political economist (1933-2012)

Elinor "Lin" Ostrom (August 7, 1933June 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.

Elinor Ostrom, 2009.


  • What is missing from the policy analyst's tool kit - and from the set of accepted, well-developed theories of human organization - is an adequately specified theory of collective action whereby a group of principals can organize themselves voluntarily to retain the residuals of their own efforts.
    • (1996) Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action p. 25-26
  • Humans have a more complex motivational structure and more capability to solve social dilemmas than posited in earlier rational-choice theory. Designing institutions to force (or nudge) entirely self-interested individuals to achieve better outcomes has been the major goal posited by policy analysts for governments to accomplish for much of the past half century. Extensive empirical research leads me to argue that instead, a core goal of public policy should be to facilitate the development of institutions that bring out the best in humans.
    • (2009) "Nobel Prize Lecture", December 8.
  • We should continue to use simple models where they capture enough of the core underlying structure and incentives that they usefully predict outcomes. When the world we are trying to explain and improve, however, is not well described by a simple model, we must continue to improve our frameworks and theories so as to be able to understand complexity and not simply reject it.
    • (2009) "Nobel Prize Lecture", December 8.

Quotes about Elinor Ostrom

  • 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. 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.
  • Ostrom cautioned against single governmental units at global level to solve the collective action problem of coordinating work against environmental destruction. Partly, this is due to their complexity, and partly to the diversity of actors involved. Her proposal was that of a polycentric approach, where key management decisions should be made as close to the scene of events and the actors involved as possible.
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