03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Why Ostrom's Nobel Is Even More Shocking Than Obama's

The news of President Obama's Nobel Peace Prize coincidentally came to me last week during a Peace Studies Conference. As in many corners, people there were speculating about the motivations for giving this prestigious award to an untested president who has yet to create a legacy of peace in his short tenure. Many, of course, truly hope that Obama turns out to be a great peacemaker, but future longings are not supposed to be the essence of this award based primarily on accomplishments and not conjecture.

It is true that the president has made some important statements about ridding the world of nuclear weapons, notably this one on the campaign trail in the summer of 2008:

"It's time to send a clear message to the world: America seeks a world with no nuclear weapons.... [W]e'll make the goal of eliminating all nuclear weapons a central element in our nuclear policy."

He followed this with similar rhetoric earlier this year while touring Europe:

"I will lay out an agenda to seek the goal of a world without nuclear weapons.... We can't reduce the threat of a nuclear weapon going off unless those that possess the most nuclear weapons, the United States and Russia, take serious steps to reduce our stockpiles. So we want to pursue that vigorously in the years ahead."

It is possible that the Nobel committee had such statements in mind during their award deliberations. As others have speculated, it is also possible that they were: (a) rebuking George Bush's policies of brinksmanship, saber-rattling, and open aggression; (b) calling on Obama's "better angels" and attempting to tamp down the pressures impelling him toward escalation of warfare as the leading edge of U.S. foreign policy; and/or (c) bolstering his nascent rhetoric and acknowledging the historic nature of his election as President. But in light of the subsequent Nobel Prize in Economics, there may have been an even subtler rationale at work here, as implied by the committee's announcement:

"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."

Make no mistake, despite the somewhat tame Nobel committee description, Ostrom's body of work is inherently radical, demonstrably anti-corporate, and implicitly socialistic. Her basic premise is that the purported "tragedy of the commons" -- in which privatization of resources is viewed as the only realistic antidote to their complete exploitation -- is actually an inversion of logic and reality, and that in fact the most sustainable forms of resource management are collective, cooperative, egalitarian, and decentralized in nature. Citing empirical case studies from around the world, Ostrom's work demonstrates how people in localities on every continent have crafted and maintained elegant solutions to what might otherwise become conflict-ridden scenarios involving competition over dwindling essential resources.

In choosing to honor her, the Nobel selection committee has provided an intriguing buttress against the self-referential "only money matters" work of people like Milton Friedman, and has extended its influence into a new generation of economics premised on sustainability and community-based management. Whereas the 1998 selection of Amartya Sen indicated a willingness to embrace emerging views that nevertheless remained within the dominant "money matters" framework, Ostrom's selection evidences an impetus to include within the terrain of economics those visions of human discourse and practice that exist largely outside of commonplace touchstones such as inflation, production, consumption, or distribution. Ostrom, in essence, exceeds crass materialism.

By conceptualizing the commons as a locus of resource management rather than exploitation, Ostrom not only focuses on the hardware involved in such systems but on the software as well. In her empirical case studies, great attention is paid to the non-hierarchical forms of decision-making and non-reified authority that pervade the administration of these "common pool resources." Ostrom observes that when people resist externalization of control over those resources and instead decide to take on the challenges of collective self-management -- thus rejecting both classical liberalism and conservatism alike -- not only is the resource base preserved but the spirit of democracy is bolstered as well. This necessitates not only rough political equality, but also a strong undercurrent of mutualism that is often masked in competition-based frameworks.

Still, Ostrom is careful to resist concluding that people in common-pool systems are somehow nicer or more culturally-predisposed toward cooperation and mutual aid. Indeed, her examples and cases span the world, and they reflect the essential (and perhaps even radical) notion that people can and will inculcate the virtues of concerted action and common humanity not because it is morally efficacious but more so because it actually works in practice. Cooperation and egalitarianism, it turns out, are viable and sustainable practices both socially and ecologically, nothing more nor less than that.

In highlighting these insights by honoring Ostrom, the Nobel committee perhaps had another aim in mind, namely to challenge the pejorative use of socialism in American politics as something akin to fascism. Obama himself is often coded as both a socialist and a fascist by oppositional demagogues, and his simultaneous honoring may be a way of taking note of this and subtly challenging its illogic. Whatever one thinks of Obama's Nobel honor, the real story in this awards cycle is that economics has been resurrected as a site of community, stability, and sustainability -- in other words, as a source of hope.

It thus turns out that a Nobel Prize was indeed awarded this year to a purveyor of hope whose last name begins with "O." While the better-known one deliberates whether to escalate resource wars, the other suggests that conflict over resources is at best an ill-conceived oxymoron. For this, perhaps she should have received a Peace Prize as well.