The Political Economy of Institutions and Resources

James A. Robinson, an economist at Harvard, writes about the political economy of the tragedy of the commons in a recent World Bank report.*

First, Robinson points out that economic theory mainly has three solutions to the tragedy; governmental intervention, Coasian bargaining, and Ostrom cooperation. The issue, however, is how to make a solution politically feasible.

It will be the nature of the political equlibrium which will determine whether or not there is, or is not, a tragedy of the commons. Failure to solve the tragedy of the commons is a political failure (p. 51).

Robinson wants economists to think about politics:

[…] it is not enough for economists to propose sensible solutions to the tragedy of the commons. These already exist. The problem is that the sensible solutions are not adopted because political forces are not aligned in the right way. Another way to think about this is to observe that too much attention has been given to figuring out what is the optimal policy, with little concern given to what is politically feasible [p. 53].

In conclusion:

[…] without an understanding of what political forces lead to the endurance of the tragedy of the commons in fisheries, we will not be able to solve it [p. 54].

A study of the political economy of fisheries councils and similar governing bodies would really interest me.

* The Political Economy of Natural Resource Use: Lessons for Fisheries Reform, Leal, D. (ed.), Prepared for the Global Program on Fisheries (PROFISH), April 2010. Agriculture and Rural Development Department, The World Bank, Washington DC.


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