Ostrom’s Law: Property Rights in the Commons

Author: 
Lee Fennell

Elinor Ostrom’s work has immeasurably enhanced legal scholars’ understanding of property. Although the richness of these contributions cannot be distilled into a single thesis, their flavor can be captured in a maxim I call Ostrom’s Law: A resource arrangement that works in practice can work in theory. Ostrom’s scholarship challenges the conventional wisdom by examining how people interact over resources on the ground – an approach that enables her to identify recurring institutional features associated with long-term success. In this essay, I trace some of the ways that Ostrom’s focus on situated examples has advanced interdisciplinary dialogue about property as a legal institution and as a human invention for solving practical problems. I begin by highlighting the attention to detail that characterizes Ostrom’s methodology. I then examine how Ostrom’s scholarship yields insights for, and employs insights from, property theory. Next, I consider the question of scale, an important focal point of Ostrom’s work, and one that carries profound implications for law. I conclude with some observations about interdisciplinarity as it relates to research on the commons.