The following is a review, originally published at Inertia Wins, of Vlad Tarko’s Elinor Ostrom: An Intellectual Biography. Ostrom’s pioneering work on “polycentrism,” the existence of multiple sources of government authority or power within a single political system, is especially relevant during the current coronavirus pandemic, in which we wrestle with the respective roles and responsibilities we expect from mayors, governors, federal officials, and international bodies like the World Health Organization.
For more on Ostrom, see the new book published this week by Utah State University’s Center for Growth and Opportunity, The Environmental Optimism of Elinor Ostrom, edited by Megan E. Jenkins, Randy Simmons, and Camille Wardle. See also the Retro Reviews series main post for more content.
Vlad Tarko is quickly establishing himself as a top-notch economist. In this, his first book, he offers the best available introduction to Nobel Laureate Elinor Ostrom’s work and the concept of polycentrism. Ostrom was the first, and so far the only, woman to win the economics Nobel [Update: This review was written before Esther Duflo co-won the 2019 prize]. She and her husband Vincent, also an accomplished economist and political scientist, ran a famous Workshop at Indiana University where they paid less attention to disciplinary boundaries than they did to solid theoretical and empirical research.
Elinor Ostrom also popularized the concept of polycentrism. It’s essentially a more finely graded version of federalism. The United States’ federal system has three main levels of government—federal, state, and local, plus a few in-between grades, most commonly counties. But not all services, Ostrom argues, fit cleanly into one of those categories. Services such as parks, police, and schools have nothing to do with each other. They may also have different optimum characteristics. So why are they often provided at the same fixed level of government? What if a school district’s optimum size extends beyond a city’s boundaries? What if a park district would be better run as multiple, hyperlocal districts? Moreover, these optimum sizes will vary from place to place. A further complication is that these optimum sizes and structures are constantly changing and evolving as culture, technology, and demographics change. Nothing else stays the same, so why should the sizes of government “firms?”
From this polycentric framework, Ostrom teases out some ground rules for institutional design. One is that smaller is usually better. Most federal issues can be more effectively handled at the state level. Many state-level issues can be handled at smaller gradients, whether regional water or irrigation authorities, transportation authorities, or neighborhood-based policing, a term that now means nearly the opposite of what it did when Ostrom began using the term. Two, because times change, institutions need to be designed with flexibility in mind. They need to be able to grow, shrink, merge, separate, and evolve as circumstances dictate. The goal is the service, not this or that corporate structure, so make change easy.
Ostrom was much more than a theorist. She placed a far greater emphasis on field research than most scholars. This empirical backing greatly improved not just her own work, but that of her many students and collaborators. Tarko shares pictures, stories, and the research she conducted across the country and abroad over her long career. For an introduction to her thought and her broader approach, Tarko is an excellent place to start.