I doubt whether many people would consider me to be a radical, even though I look forward to the withering away of the state as the social singularity subverts government activities. My views about politics have been most strongly influenced by people who were once considered to be radicals, including John Locke and Adam Smith, but these days people who hold such views are more likely to be described as conservatives. Following Friedrich Hayek, I reject the conservative label because I am strongly opposed to the use of the powers of government to resist spontaneous social change.
I have been reading Derek Wall’s book: Elinor Ostrom’s Rules for Radicals: Cooperative alternatives beyond markets and states. My main reason for reading the book was my previous advocacy, on this blog, of Elinor Ostrom’s approach to discussion of economic and social issues as a means of promoting dialogue across ideological divides. Elinor Ostrom argued that instead of presuming that individuals sharing common pool resources will inevitably experience the tragedy of the commons, we should leave ideology aside and seek to learn from experience why some efforts to solve commons problems have succeeded while others have failed. I suggested that if we apply Elinor Ostrom’s research methodology to national politics we should also seek to learn from experience why some countries have been more successful than others in coping with the tendency of interest group activity to have wealth-destroying impacts that are analogous to over-fishing.
Derek Wall describes himself as a “left-wing member of a Green Party”. When I started reading the book I didn’t expect to be able to endorse it as suitable reading for anyone other than people who self-identify as having radical views, or have some desire to be able to have a dialogue with radicals. The fact that I endorse it as worthwhile reading for a wider audience illustrates the potential for Elinor Ostrom’s views to have wide appeal across the ideological spectrum. The nonpolemical tone of the book is a credit to the author. The deep impression that Elinor Ostrom’s views have had on Derek Wall will be obvious to everyone who reads the book.
The rules for radicals that Derek Wall has derived from Elinor Ostrom’s writings are listed below, with some brief explanation summarised from the book:
1. Think about institutions. Economic activity is shaped by institutional rules. Formal rules are less important than the “dos and don’t that one learns on the ground that may not exist in any written document”.
2. Pose social change as problem solving. Those who look at politics and economics in an abstract way often fail to deal effectively with particular issues.
3. Embrace diversity. Polycentricism promotes good decision-making. The idea of a god-like leader or committee with perfect information is a myth.
4. Be specific. Move from slogans to analysis. Keep asking what can we specifically do in a specific context.
5. Listen to the people. People who participate in commons may be more likely to have good ideas about solving problems than outside experts.
6. Self-government is possible. The Ostrom approach of promoting self-government at a local level provides an attractive alternative to both top-down bureaucratic management and exercise of power by populist politicians.
7. Everything changes. Evolution happens. Technological change is creating new opportunities for collective economic activity e.g. Wikipedia.
8. Map power. If you can map flows of power, you are in a better position to change the flows.
9. Collective ownership can work. It is not always utopian and unrealistic.
10. Human beings are part of nature too. Ecological problems are profoundly political. The politics of humanity has an influence on the rest of nature.
11. All institutions are constructed, so can be constructed differently. Communities need to keep adapting and reinventing institutions. Institutional development should occur constantly and engage all citizens.
12. No panaceas. Imperfect humans cannot design utopia. If we attempt to construct institutional blueprints failure is likely.
13. Complexity does not mean chaos. Polycentricism and overlapping jurisdictions can be more efficient than hierarchical structures with linear chains of command.
It seems to me that most of those rules are as relevant to conservatives as to radicals. In all modern democracies conservatives and radicals seem to share the misconception that all economic and social problems can be solved if they can win and hold on to power at a national level.