Peter Söderbaum: Beyond Ostrom. Preliminary Thoughts

I have just read one of the short articles entitled “Coevolving Relationships between Political Science and Economics” by Elinor Ostrom sent to me by Judith Dellheim. I have previously read two of her books and even had a chance to listen to her when she was lecturing at Uppsala University visiting Uppsala as winner of the Bank of Sweden Prize in Memory of Alfred Nobel.

As I see it, Ostrom’s writings represent one of the few openings in recent times to a serious discussion of the neoclassical economics perspective. She discusses governance and argues that there are alternatives in addition to governance through the market and governance through the state. She has been active in the ‘Governance of the Commons’ debate pointing to the possibility of cooperation of actors who have access to some natural resource and can control it by deciding about the rules of using it. She adds that performance can be good or bad for each kind of organization (market, state and local cooperation).

It is important that a political scientist has received the Bank of Sweden Prize and in the mentioned article she points to the overlapping interests between economists and political scientists by referring to public choice theory, the tragedy of the commons debate, new institutional economics and behavioral economics. She writes about these as “interdisciplinary approaches” when in fact many of us see them as part of the neoclassical approach.

Elinor Ostrom speaks of complexity but she is very ambitious in terms of explanation. She looks at many cases of governance and hopes to predict behavior and performance for organizations designed in specific ways. She refers to cooperative game theory (with pay-offs etc.), experimental laboratory studies and the testing of hypotheses in traditional ways that one can understand are appreciated by mainstream economists.

I am not enthusiastic about this way of working. The important thing is rather to present a conceptual framework and language that is useful in approaching sustainability issues and other problems. This language in turn should be useful for various actors when understanding (explaining) and trying to anticipate different events or developments. It should also be noted that I have not found any reference to heterodox scholars in economics. Institutionalism is equal to ‘new’ (neoclassical) institutionalism etc.

But Ostrom’s discussion about Governance of the Commons as an institution is certainly of interest. We should probably also discuss the “public goods” concept of neoclassical theory. Should this “public sphere” be commodified much like “private goods” or should we realize that there is a public sphere also to private goods. Private goods then can be seen as a subcategory of concern for the public sphere. After having listened to Elinor Ostrom in Uppsala I asked her if she accepted the distinction between private goods and public goods or if some alternative paradigm was needed. She did not want to enter into a discussion about paradigms which made me argue that at some stage we have to realize that “the public sphere is everywhere”.

This is where I am in my thoughts today. It can be added that a person, June Sekera, has initiated a debate “Why aren’t we talking about public goods” at where by the way I have made a comment emphasizing democracy and that we need concepts such as ‘ideological orientation’ although they may appear strange at first sight.

Concerning economics education that is mentioned by Judith Dellheim in her list of concerns for the November workshop, I like to report that I am supervising a Master student at Uppsala University, Thimothé Parrique, who – based on a number of interviews with teachers at his previous university, Université de Versailles St Quentin – is writing about introductory economics education in relation to sustainability issues. It appears that there are many excuses for avoiding pluralism. The Master thesis will be available in the next few weeks.

This is all for today!

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