This week’s In Memoriam scholar, Vincent Ostrom, was married to last week’s In Memoriam scholar (our series highlighting the top 10 social scientists that have died in recent years)—Elinor Ostrom. They are one of the most famous social scientist couples in the twentieth century.
Vincent was born on September 25, 1919 and died on June 29, 2012. He earned his Ph.D. at UCLA in 1950, then founded a Workshop in Political Theory and Policy Analysis at Indiana University Bloomington with his wife, Elinor. His research focused on self-governance, collective action and constitutional federalism.
Vincent Ostrom’s arguably best work, which was published late in his life in 1997, The Meaning of Democracy and the Vulnerability of Democracies: A Response to Tocqueville’s Challenge, explains how democratic societies are self-governing rather than state-governed. Alexis de Tocqueville’s argument that if people are acting on natural instincts they would expect the government to provide for their needs. Such a notion, Ostrom eloquently argues, is inconsistent with a self-governing society. In his book, Ostrom uses philosophy, economics, sociology, history and even language to describe what a successful self-governing society looks like. He examines both formal and informal institutions in democratic societies, including those in the developing world.
Here is a passage from his book about plenary authority (absolute authority) and constitutional prerogatives (a right given exclusively). Ostrom makes the argument that
“An important issue in the sharing and pooling of authority relationships has to do with the reserved authority to deal with unknown future contingencies. The language of jurisprudence refers to plenary authority, implying full or complete authority. How societies make arrangements for the exercise of such a system of reserved authority affects everyone in the relevant jurisdictions.”
And he goes on to say, that
“A basic question, then, is whether people can learn to use the language and theory of authority relationships to undertake the pooling, rearranging, and compromising of existing interests in crafting authority relationships for working out engineering solutions not only to water problems but to diverse forms of artisanship-artifact relationships existing in human societies, including the craft of designing institutional arrangements as authority structures. If such conditions were attainable, we could appropriately imagine self-governing democratic societies to be feasible.”
The basic framework for a successful democracy that Ostrom proposes here and throughout his other work is that people of a free society must share similar beliefs and meanings to pursue peaceful collaboration towards common purposes. Pooling interests and working on collaborative solutions is indicative of every successful democracy. His work, together with Elinor, on the organization of democratic societies and pooling of resources, especially as it relates to environmental and property rights, has had a tremendous influence on the social science fields.
Another interesting blog post by Dr. Ebeling on Vincent Ostrom appears here.