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HKS Authors

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Adams Professor of Political Leadership and Democratic Values, Emerita
Adams Professor of Political Leadership and Democratic Values

Abstract

Elinor Ostrom did not argue that state action is antithetical to local knowledge and effective organization. She argued, to the contrary, that higher levels of state action are often necessary to solve complex common-pool resource problems. In Ostrom's central concept of polycentrism, local decision making groups must often be “nested” within state structures at a higher level, so that the higher structures can provide the coercion and other resources that make local negotiation efficient. The state has four potentially crucial roles in a polycentric system. The first is to threaten to impose a solution (a “public-interest penalty default”) if local parties cannot come to a negotiated agreement. The second is to provide a source of relatively neutral information to mitigate the problem of self-serving bias regarding the relevant facts. The third is to provide an arena for negotiating that facilitates low-cost, enforceable agreements. The fourth is to help monitor compliance and sanction defection in the implementation phase. All four arise in Governing the Commons. Today we must also consider the international level, which has no state. Issues such as global warming therefore require that we build overarching institutions to perform these state functions while at the same time preserving the flexible, grounded, local knowledge and participant commitment that facilitate legitimate and efficient systems of cooperation.

Citation

Mansbridge, Jane. "The Role of the State in Governing the Commons." Environmental Science and Policy 36.8 (February 2014): 8-10.