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John Stossel
John Stossel
3 Feb 2016
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27 Jan 2016
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20 Jan 2016
Economic Myths

Hillary Clinton: "Of course we want to raise the minimum wage!" Donald Trump: If we trade with China, "they … Read More.

Self-Governance Works


Much of what government does is based on the premise that people can't do things for themselves. So government must do it for them. More often than not, the result is a ham-handed, bumbling, one-size-fits-all approach that leaves the intended beneficiaries worse off. Of course, this resulting failure is never blamed on the political approach — on the contrary, failure is taken to mean the government solution was not extravagant enough.

We who have confidence in what free people can achieve have long believed that government should not venture beyond its narrow sphere of providing physical security. It should not attempt to cure every social ill. So it's good to learn that serious scholars have demonstrated that our intuitions are right. Free people, given the chance, solve what many "experts" think are problems that require state intervention.

For that reason, Elinor Ostrom's winning of the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences ought to kindle a new interest in freedom. (See my earlier column here:

Ostrom made her mark through field studies that show people solving one of the more vexing problems: efficient management of a common-pool resource (CPR), such as a pasture or fishery. With an unowned "commons," each individual has an incentive to get the most out of it without putting anything back.

If I take fish from a common fishing area, I benefit completely from those fish. But if I make an investment to increase the future number of fish, others benefit, too. So why should I risk making the investment? I'll wait for others to do it. But everyone else faces the same free-rider incentive. So we end up with a depleted resource and what Garrett Harden called "the tragedy of the commons" (

Except, says Ostrom, we often don't. There is also an "opportunity of the commons." While most politicians conclude that, depending on the resource, efficient management requires either privatization or government ownership, Ostrom finds examples of a third way: "self-organizing forms of collective action," as she put it in an interview a few years ago ( Her message is to be wary of government promises.

"Field studies in all parts of the world have found that local groups of resource users, sometimes by themselves and sometimes with the assistance of external actors, have created a wide diversity of institutional arrangements for cooperating with common-pool resources."

She has studied, for example, self-governing irrigation systems in Nepal and found successes never anticipated in the textbooks.

"Irrigation systems built and governed by the farmers themselves are on average in better repair, deliver more water, and have higher agricultural productivity than those provided and managed by a government agency. ... (F)armers craft their own rules, which frequently offset the perverse incentives they face in their particular physical and cultural settings. These rules may be almost invisible to outsiders. ..."

In "Governing the Commons," she writes about self-governed commons in Switzerland, Japan, the Philippines and elsewhere that date back hundreds of years. For example, in the alpine village of Tobel, Switzerland, herdsmen "tend village cattle on communally owned alpine meadows" under rules of an association created in 1483. The rules govern who has access to the grazing lands and how many cows a herdsman can place there, preventing overgrazing. The cattle owners themselves run the association and handle the monitoring. Sanctions are imposed for violation of the rules, but compliance is high.

Don't mistake the association for government. Rather, it is a private co-op designed for a narrow purpose. "All of the Swiss institutions used to govern commonly owned alpine meadows have one obvious similarity — the appropriators themselves make all the major decisions about the use of the CPR."

She found something similar in Japanese villages, where residents use private property for some agricultural purposes and self-managed common forests for others.

Solutions imposed by external authority were not necessary — and usually self-defeating: "Academics, aid donors, international nongovernmental organizations, central governments, and local citizens need to learn and relearn that no government can develop the full array of knowledge, institutions and social capital needed to govern development efficiently and sustainably. ..."

How about that? Freedom works.

John Stossel will soon host "Stossel" on the Fox Business Network. He's the author of "Give Me a Break" and of "Myth, Lies, and Downright Stupidity." To find out more about John Stossel and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at




1 Comments | Post Comment
Dear John Stossel. Good Article! For the past five decades, the politicians promoted social and welfare programs so the recipients could live'high on the hog' and in exchange these recipients would vote for them, thus making bigger government and bankrupting America! Liberals have no concept (nor do they care) why insurance, drugs, hospitals, and anything else the politicians have control of, has gone out of site because they're taking billions from these companies and sticking it to the American Taxpayers to pay for - and now they want to reform Healthcare - TAXPAYERS SAY 'I DON'T THINK SO' AS politicians destroyed everything government has been involved in! Just in case you didn't know about the billions being fraudulent taking from medicare and medicaid, in past several years, and no politicians nor government workers are even caring enough to check it out ans put an end to it! Doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out government control has never worked and never will! From 1998 until 2004, I asked the NRCC why Taxpayers couldn't get honest answers from politicians of all affiliations. The form letters they sent in return, hand stamped, written by a staffer, made me wonder where the greedy politicians stayed all the time. It further told me that politicians had no interest in anything except their very deep pockets. Economy never fully recovered from the 70's! Due to lack of American businesses, higher taxes, plastic cars and other overpriced consumer products, these greedy politicians should have been concentrating on America's future. Politicians should have started cutting their salaries, retirements, taxing and spending and going over the high-dollar budgets, line by line, until everything was cut back fifty (50%) percent. The enormous debt brought about by incompetent politicians, high salaries, retirements, social, welfare programs, and frivolous overspending should have stopped. Instead, it's now boiled over like a run-a-way train. The only thing the greedy politicians can say is 'I inherited this debt!' Instead of cutting and changing what should have been done, they're way of thinking is still 'we'll stimulate the economy with more bailouts and handouts' and once the great recession ends, we'll reduce the deficit!' A little late, wouldn't you say? All Economists and Taxpayers, know the politicians will never get control of the imbalances; therefore, it's time to hand out pink slips. I pointed out that all manufacturing jobs had to be brought back to America. We couldn't be a 'service country'. The only thing America is servicing is unemployment, social and welfare programs. It's now late October 2009, and the trillions of dollars, borrowed without Taxpayers consent, is growing to the point it's making Taxpayers think "Who's going to own America when the interest isn't paid?" I further pointed out that Social Security belonged only to Taxpayers that had worked and should be their retirement! Folks, through corrupt and greedy politicians, social security has been borrowed against for illegitimates and people not wanting to work leaving nothing for the people that paid money in. Democrat and Republican Taxpayers, of all races, should be outraged by the radical and socialist proposed Healthcare. Anyone, with common sense, should have guessed that 1012 pages (unread by politicians as usual) wasn't about Healthcare but about hidden agendas and building a bridge over the sand in the Arizona desert. What's really going to happen to Social Security since there's no one working to pay into the system for future generations? Do you think the politicians are going to continue to hand you a check that you're not entitled to? Politicians say 'you must volunteer and give back to your community!' By the way, why don't you get off your duffs and volunteer at homeless shelters and without the secret service, since this costs Taxpayers. While I'm on a roll, you could also donate eleven (11) months of your salaries and retirement benefits to Taxpayers that's having to work two (2) jobs just to survive due to your incompetency! By the way, Taxpayers 'Pledge to Fight Socialized Medicine!'
Comment: #1
Posted by: Shirley deLong
Mon Nov 2, 2009 5:53 AM
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