February, 2010

Is the Only Form of "Reasonable Regulation" Self Regulation?

Lessons from Lin Ostrom on Regulating the Commons and Cultivating Citizens
  • Peter J. Boettke

    Director, F. A. Hayek Program for Advanced Study in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics
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Elinor Ostrom has made significant contributions throughout her career to the disciplines of political economy and public choice. Her most widely recognized contributions relate to the work on common-pool resources. She has discovered a diversity of institutional arrangements that serve in various human societies to promote cooperation and avoid conflict over resource use. Where a strict interpretation of theory would predict over-use and mismanagement, she found collective action arrangements that proved effective in limiting access and establishing accountability. Many of the effective tools of governance she found resided not in the formal structure of government, but instead in the informal, and sometimes even tacit, rules that communities live by. 

This paper pushes the argument further, asking whether the foundation of an effective system of regulation must be found first and foremost in the rules of self-regulation that communities adopt and their citizens abide by, rather than in well-designed regulatory statutes by efficiency experts. Efforts to regulate human activities to suppress their most crass desires, discipline their wildest whims, and harness their self-interest exist throughout the world. Most of the intellectual efforts of economists and political economists have been directed at studying the formal regulations established and implemented by agencies within government. Lin, on the other hand, studied the political economy of everyday life and the self-regulation of behavior, rather than the political economy of government exclusively. What do we learn from Lin’s work about the relationship between these two forms of the regulation of behavior in human societies? Thus, the question, ‘is the only form of ‘reasonable regulation’ self-regulation?’

The full text of this paper can be downloaded from SSRN.