Ostrom plus Habermas is nearly all we need

The late, great Elinor Ostrom is much on my mind. I taught her work in Mexico a couple of weeks ago and will be visiting her Bloomington (IN) Workshop in Political Theory and Policy Analysis next weekend. I’d like to claim that many thinkers have influenced me, and I wouldn’t want to have to do without any of them. But I believe we can get at least 80% of the way to a satisfactory social theory if we combine the two thinkers we talked about in Mexico: Ostrom and Jürgen Habermas. They are importantly different, as this table indicates–yet I think both contribute essential insights.

Ostrom Habermas
Fundamental problem Tragedies of the commons. People manipulating other people by influencing their opinions and goals.
Characteristic symptom of the problem We destroy an environmental asset by failing to work together. Government or corporate propaganda distorts our authentic values.
Characteristic starting point People know what they want but can’t get it. People don’t know what they want or want the wrong things.
Essential behavior of a citizen Working together to make or preserve something. Talking and listening about controversial values.
Instead of homo economicus (the individual who maximizes material self-interest) we need … Homo faber (the person as a maker) Homo sapiens (the person as a reasoner) or homo politicus (the participant in public assemblies).
Role of the state It is a set of nested and overlapping associations, not fundamentally different from other associations (firms, nonprofits, etc.). Citizens form public opinion, which should guide the state, which makes law. The state should be radically distinct from other sectors.
Modernity is … A threat to local and traditional ways of cooperating, but we could use science to assist people in solving their own problems. A process of enlightenment that liberates people, but it goes wrong when states and markets “colonize” the private domain.
Main interdisciplinary combination Game theory plus observations of indigenous problem-solving. Normative philosophy (mainly achieved through critical readings of past philosophers) plus system-level sociology.

If you ask me who is right about any of the issues in this table, I am inclined to say: both.

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.