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Meet the First and Only Woman to Be Awarded the Nobel Prize in Economics

Elinor Ostrom was the epitome of a kind and encouraging academic who was nevertheless quite serious about the issues at hand.

When I walked into my economic history class one morning in 2009, I felt abnormally cheerful. It was a watershed moment for economists working in the public choice and institutional traditions, as well as those who value inter- and transdisciplinary research.

The Nobel Prize in Economics had been awarded to Elinor Ostrom and Oliver Williamson.

Ostrom, who would have turned 86 this month if she hadn't died of cancer in 2012, was a brilliant choice. She was on the periphery of the club for three reasons. First, she was a she receiving a prize that had previously exclusively been awarded to hes, and she is still the only female to receive the Nobel Prize in Economics. Second, she spent the most of her career at Indiana University-Bloomington, which is a good university but not one of the top colleges that often produce Nobel laureates, such as Chicago, Berkeley, Harvard, or MIT. She wasn't even an economist, to begin with. Political science was Ostrom's Ph.D. field.

It's somewhat unsurprising that several economists responded with a perplexed "who?" This attitude, I believe, reveals a lot more about those economists than it does about her.

Ostrom was very much a part of what economist Peter J. Boettke refers to as the "mainline" tradition, which stretches from Adam Smith in the 18th century through Friedrich Hayek and James M. Buchanan in the twentieth. She is one of the intellectual founders of the "Bloomington School" of political economics, called after their longterm intellectual home at Indiana University-Bloomington, with her husband Vincent Ostrom, a distinguished scholar in his own right. "For her understanding of economic governance, particularly the commons," she received the Nobel Prize.

To use a term from fellow Nobel laureate Ronald Coase, she was a researcher who glanced out the window, and she demonstrated empirically and experimentally how institutions arise to manage common-pool resources "without any regulation by central authority or privatization." In other words, sensible rule-makers do not design and enforce effective, context-specific governance of common-pool resources from above. "Beyond Markets and States: Polycentric Governance of Complex Economic Systems," her Nobel Prize talk, should, in my opinion, be required reading for any social scientist, not just economists.

I’ll close with a couple of personal notes. She was the very picture of a welcoming and encouraging scholar who was at the same time super-serious about the ideas in play. At the 2008 Public Choice Society meeting, I was part of a panel discussion of Bryan Caplan’s The Myth of the Rational Voter. I distinctly remember thinking during my remarks “I think I heard Elinor Ostrom laugh at one of my jokes, so I guess this wasn’t too bad.” A few months after she won the prize, I had the honor of presenting a paper on the Memphis Riot of 1866 at her Workshop in Bloomington. It eventually appeared in Public Choice (you can find a free version here). Her willingness to really listen to what I had to say encouraged me toward the beginning of my career and set an example of what it means to really be a scholar worthy of the title.

Elinor Ostrom is no longer with us, but her research tradition lives on in the Ostrom Workshop at Indiana and in scholarship drawing from the Bloomington tradition like the new book Public Governance and the Classical-Liberal Perspective by Paul Dragos Aligica, Peter J. Boettke, and Vlad Tarko. If you have a minute, listen to this episode of Economics Detective Radio with Tarko on Ostrom’s ideas and career and watch this video on Ostrom from Marginal Revolution University. Watch and read her Nobel lecture. I think you will find it a good use of your time.

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