The Quest for Meaning in Public Choice

By Ostrom, Elinor; Ostrom, Vincent | The American Journal of Economics and Sociology, January 2004 | Go to article overview

The Quest for Meaning in Public Choice


Ostrom, Elinor, Ostrom, Vincent, The American Journal of Economics and Sociology


I

Logical Foundations of Democracies

IN OUR EFFORTS TO UNDERSTAND THE LOGICAL FOUNDATIONS of constitutional democracy, we both found that The Calculus of Consent (Buchanan and Tullock 1962) gave us basic tools for acquiring some analytical leverage in addressing particular problems that people are required to address about public affairs. Vincent had, for example, served as a consultant to the Alaska constitutional convention, working with others in committees and subcommittees to prepare the draft of Article VIII on Natural Resources. The principle of conceptual unanimity gave meaning to what he had observed and what was accomplished. The physical and cultural exigencies of Alaska loomed large in considering the juridical principles of property relationships to apply to the appropriation of natural resources in the public domain.

Elinor explored the way that pumpers in West Basin, California, used equity jurisprudence to engage efforts to craft public enterprises for governing and managing groundwater basins as common-pool resources. The processes of equity jurisprudence sought to achieve conceptual unanimity in establishing the nature of the problem, in adjudicating water rights, in formulating the rules that were constitutive of water user associations, the way they related to one another, and in monitoring performance.

Adjudicating water rights, establishing pump taxes, and developing exchange relationships suggested efforts to minimize the costs of time and effort to be expended and potential deprivation costs. Public enterprises capable of levying taxes and enforcing regulations became the essential complement of private for-profit enterprises and voluntary nonprofit enterprises. Public entrepreneurs in the Southern California region crafted numerous, diversely constituted enterprises to facilitate the development of that region. Water supply depended on extensive analytical capabilities worked out in different political arenas (E. Ostrom 1965, 1990).

These tiny events in the sea of human endeavors impelled us to explore efforts to address the logical foundations for order in human societies. In addition to reading what authors had to say, we devoted ourselves to efforts to understand the logic and the presuppositions that authors were using in what they had to say. The authors of The Federalist (n.d. [1788]) developed and used a theory of constitutional choice to explain the draft constitution formulated by the constitutional convention held in Philadelphia in 1787. The essays initially prepared as newspaper articles were addressed "To the People of the State of New York" as an effort to inform their deliberations about the ratification of the Constitution of the United States. Vincent's The Political Theory of a Compound Republic (1987[1971]) is an effort to expound the theory used by Alexander Hamilton and James Madison as they sought to address themselves to the theoretical architecture of a federal republic known as the United States of America.

The works of Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, the Baron de Montesquieu, David Hume, Emmanuel Kant, Adam Smith, and many others provide a longer-standing tradition of inquiry about the logical foundations of order in human societies. All of these efforts sought to contribute to and elaborate a calculus of consent. In many ways, Hobbes's De Cive or the Citizen (1949[1642]) and Leviathan (1960[1651]) are remarkable efforts to deal with the logical foundations of political order. His treatment of the human condition, the place of language in understanding the human condition, and the dilemma of individuals who seek their own good and who in the presence of scarcity wind up fighting with one another and enduring the misery of war are efforts to clarify the logical foundations of commonwealths.

Hobbes's way of resolving the dilemma of those who seek their own good but realize the misery of war was to consider how men might achieve peace as an alternative to war. …

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